LAFF 2010 Review: ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 8th, 2011

Editor's note: This review was originally published on June 29, 2010 as a Los Angeles Film Festival review. ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is now in limited release in NYC, with LA to follow.

Rating: 4/5

Writer: Cristina Colissimo
Director: Lisa Leeman

Animal people. Not everyone is one, but I find it hard to understand people who don’t feel connections with animals. David Balding is an animal person. In ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT, we meet Balding and his elephant, Flora. Balding routinely refers to Flora as “his daughter,” a sentiment that any animal person can echo. I call my cat my son, partly because I don’t have my own real children yet, partly because I’m insane, and mainly because it’s just true.

Circus producer Balding purchased the orphaned Flora when she was just two years old. Born in the wild, but brought into captivity after the slaughtering of her mother and other members of her herd in front of her, baby Flora is in need of a home. Balding takes in Flora to make her the centerpiece of his circus, renaming it in honor of his star pachyderm. For eighteen years, Flora and Balding were inseparable, forming their own family unit while performing side-by-side. Things were wonderful. Until they weren’t.

As we first meet Flora and Balding, the circus man has realized that his child is no longer happy, not just in terms of the performing aspect of her life, but in terms of every aspect of her life. Flora needs to leave the circus, because Flora needs to be with other elephants. And so begins our quest to find the right place for the elephant and to get her there. From the beginning, it’s hard to not immediately realize that things are not going to go to plan and that ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is not just a story about, well, one elephant.

Balding often speaks about regret, mistakes, and questioning what he’s done. He regrets not keeping the other elephant that Flora was brought to America with. He regrets not getting another elephant. He regrets making Flora perform for so long. He regrets not trying harder to secure her happiness. Balding is crushed by both the reality of what is happening to Flora and his belief that his mistakes have created these circumstances.

As a film, ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is extremely well-crafted. Director Leeman surprises the audience at each turn, building to events and then bringing us back down. The film is packed with blows, as Balding struggles to find a place for Flora despite all sorts of unforeseen odds, leading to a second-half battle no one could have seen coming. Flora’s destiny puts people at odds, and the last forty minutes of the film are dedicated to a fight between people who all have Flora’s best interests at heart, even as they all have different plans for her future. The film does feature scenes that attempt to delve into the hardships (physical and emotional) of a circus elephant. While there could certainly be more of this tough stuff, it’s not necessarily what the film is about, and I encourage anyone who found these elements intriguing to do further investigating.

I cried, on average, about every seven minutes while watching ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT. These weren’t big, sobbing TITANIC tears, they were choked-up throat tears, heart-crushing little bursts. And, as much as I’d be tempted to say that these were tears that anyone who has ever loved an animal would cry, as the film wore on it become obvious – these were tears that anyone who has ever loved anyone would cry.

More than anything, ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is a love story. It’s about the sacrifices we have to make and the pain we must endure to make the right choices for those we love. At one point, Balding readily admits that what he is doing has to be about what is best for Flora, not what is best for him. Even if it means that he will spend the rest of his life with a broken heart, he must make the choices that will ensure that Flora has a happy life. How lucky is Flora? The luckiest.

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