Hard to watch, and hard not to keep watching, the HBO documentary "Coma" is not actually about coma but about what comes after. (The more accurate "Traumatic Brain Injury" isn't quite as arresting a title.) A state of profound unconsciousness from which a person cannot wake, a coma provides no information; whatever there is to say about it, there is nothing there to see. It is a dark pool. When the eyes open, the coma ends and the questions begin.
The idea here is simple. Director Liz Garbus (the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning "The Farm: Angola, USA") follows four patients at the Center for Head Injuries at the JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J., over the course of a year, during which time two improve and two do not. When we meet them, all have already emerged into either a vegetative state (awake but unaware) or a state of minimal consciousness (in which a patient fitfully exhibits signs of deliberate response). All are young or relatively young; two fell from great heights, two were injured in car accidents.
"Coma" is not meant as a primer on head injury, which is a deep and slippery subject -- often the occasion of political and religious controversy -- and constantly given to refinements of definition and diagnosis. And it's further complicated by the confusion of basic terms in popular discussions and media and because every case is different and therefore unpredictable.
Garbus gives a little social-historical context through a medley of clips touching on some of the best-known cases, including Karen Ann Quinlan, Sunny von Bulow, Terry Schiavo and Terry Wallis, who in 2004 began to speak after 19 years in a minimally conscious state. (The subject stays in the news: In March, a Colorado woman awoke from six years in a vegetative state, only to slip away again after three days.)
But mostly Garbus just watches and listens, as doctors, parents and patients struggle to make themselves understood and to understand. (Or, in some cases, fail to struggle.) The way is marked by frustration, aggression, confusion, even delusion.
The injured brain does not always know it's injured, but even the fully conscious person can't always see the situation for what it is. Understandably so -- the brain-crumpled body, the dull stare that masks attention, the automatic responses that mimic intention, all make for difficult, deceptive reading.
More than anything else, this is a film about family, and especially it is about mothers and the magic they try to work. As the film opens, one woman coos to her daughter words like something out a fairy tale: "Roxy, Roxy. Open your eyes. Mommy's going to hold them. One, two.... And you're going to hold them up ... Wake up, wake up
And there is indeed a kind of dark enchantment here: Adults are hurled back into infancy; parents who had thought their job was done begin again. Posters and pennants transform a hospital room into a child's home. The staff dresses itself for Halloween, for Christmas. It is all unspeakably touching.
Apart from one injudicious use of Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack, Garbus resists easy sentiment. "Coma" doesn't baldly play on your emotions -- the subject takes care of that for itself -- or try to tell you what to feel or what to think about the patients, their families, their doctors, therapists or friends. Mostly, you just think, "I'm glad it isn't me."
When: 9 tonight