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The Netflix short documentary Extremis looks at the hard questions of end-of-life care

The film makes the difficult decisions families and patients make wrenchingly real.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for March 25 through 31 is Extremis (2016), which is available to stream on Netflix.

Each of the five 2016 Oscar-nominated short documentary films is a stunner, including the one that won, The White Helmets. But the one I haven’t been able to get out of my mind is Extremis — especially this week, watching the machinations and melee around congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Extremis, directed by Dan Krauss, is only 24 minutes long — the length of your average network sitcom — and follows Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care specialist who leads a team in the Highland Hospital ICU in Oakland, California. Zitter’s task is helping families make end-of-life decisions for their loved ones, who are often terminally ill.

Dr. Jessica Zitter, the centerpoint of Extremis.
Dr. Jessica Zitter, the centerpoint of Extremis.

As the film follows Zitter, we sit with families who are stuck in the horrible position of trying to decide whether this person they love should be left on life support, if that’s likely to be the only life they’ll have, whether it’s wise or good to hold out for a miracle — and whether they’re making that decision for the patient’s good or their own. In some cases, Zitter and her colleagues try to help patients who don’t have any family that might make those decisions for them.

There is so much gut-wrenching drama packed into Extremis’s 24 minutes that it’s hard to imagine watching a full-length feature film like it. It raises questions most of us know in the abstract but hope never to encounter: Can a terminally ill person make decisions about their own life? What about their loved ones? Is there a time when expending resources on care is wise, and others when it’s wasteful and even hurtful? How does modern medical technology aid in this process, and when is it prolonging suffering? Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Extremis puts a human face on these questions. Unlike that film, though, Extremis is as far from a comedy as you can imagine.

Debates about health care — especially insurance — always seem to come down to arguments over how decisions will be made under extreme circumstances, and whether the right of patients to anticipate what they might need in the future outweighs everyone’s unexpected worst nightmare. Extremis takes these questions seriously and treats them with a clinical but compassionate eye. There’s just no simple answer when a person’s life hangs in the balance.

Watch the trailer for Extremis: