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Documentary follows family as son defies expectations about how long he will live

🕐 2 min read

“We’re very good at end-of-life care.”

That’s what medical experts told Ryan and Amy Green after informing the parents that Joel, their young son, had terminal brain cancer. And it’s what a faceless avatar can be seen telling the couple in “That Dragon, Cancer,” a video game based on Joel’s life.

To understand why Ryan Green, a video-game programmer from Colorado, decided to chronicle his family’s experiences this way, watch “Thank You For Playing,” a documentary from filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall that debuted on PBS on Oct 24. (It’s available for streaming at pbs.org until Nov. 23.)

“Fighting cancer is kind of a game,” the father explains in the film.

There’s a clear mission: “trying to find just the right formula to save a life, my son’s life.” There are plenty of tasks along the way, including dealing with multiple medications, feeding tubes and beeping monitors. There are also – maybe unexpectedly for viewers – moments of joy. So players can join Joel as he tosses bread crumbs to ducks and giggles his way down a slide.

Those are Joel’s real laughs featured in the game (although we don’t hear his cries). Green, wife Amy and their other sons all voiced their own parts as they re-enacted moments pulled from their lives, such as the time one of his brothers wanted to know why Joel couldn’t speak like other kids. The parents reminded him that Joel had gotten sick when he had just turned 1, and that had “slowed him down.”

When those first tumors appeared, Joel’s doctors predicted he had only four months to live. He defied expectations, and so did the game. The film shows the tearful reactions of people at a video-game expo who were some of the first to try “That Dragon, Cancer.” One guy goes to give Green a handshake, and the two end up hugging.

If viewers at home aren’t sobbing along by that part, give it a few more minutes. Although Joel was still alive during the 2013 expo, his health had started deteriorating. The documentary follows the family as they move to San Francisco for an experimental treatment. When it didn’t work, they returned to Colorado, where Joel was on an oxygen tank and unable to walk, stand or crawl. He died in early 2014, at the age of 5.

But in a video game, Joel can laugh forever.

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