Henry's Hair opens with an emotional gut punch. The documentary starts with old camcorder footage of a woman and her infant son on a beach. Then, it flashes forward to a funeral in a candlelit church. Henry, the boy from the camcorder footage, is now 13 years old, and his mother has just died of cancer.
"Henry looks up at his dad and says he doesn't know how, he doesn't know when, but he's gonna find some way to fight cancer," says the narrator after the film fades to black.
That voice belongs to Dean McCrea, the movie's director and Henry's dad. Just four days after the death of his mother, Henry makes a commitment: He will grow out his hair as long as possible and then donate it to Locks of Love in her memory. Dean, a Portland native with decades of video production experience, created the film "to follow [his] journey."
That meaningful, yet small story grew in magnitude when McCrea was in the final stages of making the documentary. Henry's Hair went unfinished for almost 10 years, until McCrea decided to enter post-production in 2017. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with terminal heart disease and given six months to live. So Portland's film community rallied around McCrea to bring the project to fruition. Videographers, editors and sound designers all offered to help McCrea, free of charge.
McCrea largely attributes their work to the relationships he built over his 32 years working in video production, directing and editing other Portland documentaries. But he was initially shocked they would help. "It's been humbling," says McCrea.
In the documentary's interviews, even Henry—an offensive lineman whose large frame hides a gentle, quiet demeanor—is skeptical of the impact his father's project will have. "I'm sure it has something to do with his grieving process," he says. "I didn't understand it at first, but in the past couple months, I've understood that it's probably his way of letting go."
The first half of the film ends with a schoolwide assembly dedicated to Henry cutting off his huge mop of red hair. Friends and family form a small crowd around him, and as the last lock of hair falls to the ground, the makeshift salon fills with applause. It's an emotional moment, and as the screen fades to black, it's easy to assume that it's the end of the story. When he initially set his footage aside in 2009, McCrea thought the same.
In the wake of his prognosis, McCrea transformed the film into a documentary about Henry becoming a family of one. The film includes interviews with Henry shot just months ago. "I already know what my life will be like when my dad is gone, on a day-to-day basis," Henry says in the film. "I don't know how my emotions will be yet."
For McCrea, the work has become a valuable lifeline. "I think my being engaged with this film is helping my health," he says. "This has been the best thing I've ever done in my life. I've never been involved in something that grabbed my passion like this has."
McCrea has outlived his prognosis by three months. He attributes that both to Henry's Hair and Henry himself, who dropped out of school to help his father. "I'm fully aware of how sick I am," McCrea says in the film's final scene. "Will you miss me?" he asks Henry, and Henry nods.
"I'll miss you, too," McCrea replies. Then, the film ends with Henry sitting by himself on the beach, facing an uncertain horizon.
SEE IT: Henry's Hair is at Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St., mcmenamins.com/mission-theater. 7 pm Friday, April 27. Free.