The World Trade Centersite in a scene from "Rebirth." (Showtime )
The affecting "Rebirth" is an ode to the grieving process, a documentary about five people whose lives were knocked sideways by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, but who come to some hard-won truths about what it means to move on.
What's galvanizing about director Jim Whitaker's effort is its 10-year trajectory as a project: Whitaker began his interviews in 2002, and caught up with his subjects every year, giving the film a unique glimpse into the recovery mechanism of damaged hearts and bewildered minds, how a visage of hollowed-out sorrow after one year becomes a look of more peaceful acceptance down the road.
Think Michael Apted's acclaimed "Up" series of seven-year-interval documentaries compressed into one film, and you get some of the idea of the unique structure of "Rebirth."
The movie fairly brims with inherently emotional suspense, whether it's following how firefighter Tim, who lost a colleague in the collapse of the World Trade Center, deals with his overpowering guilt, or how then-teenage Nicholas — whose mother worked in the towers that day — loses touch with a father whose grief takes a different path.
Other participants include teary, passionate Tanya, whose firefighter fiancé died that day, and who makes telling observations about everything from how bad news gets delivered to her jealousy toward new parents to the turmoil of dating again. And as we watch the uncertain progress of tower escapee Ling's second- and third-degree burns, the resilience of her humor becomes the deeper, more affirming tale.
"Rebirth" is at its best when zeroed in on human details, and the intimate, unvarnished nature of the testimonials, but it suffers occasionally from sentimental overreach when recordings of kd lang's version of "Hallelujah" and Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole's "Over the Rainbow" get laid over conventional montages of grieving mourners.
That said, the filmic cliché of a Philip Glass score over time-lapsed photography — in this case cinematographer Tom Lappin's arresting visuals of World Trade Center site rebuilding efforts — ends up working splendidly for "Rebirth" as it charts its souls in recovery.