Mission to Lars is a documentary tracking Kate and Will Spicer’s efforts to bring their brother Tom to the United States to meet Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer. Tom suffers from Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition that is, as Kate describes it, “a sort of autism with bells on,” which causes him to think repetitively, stick to a routine, and avoid new experiences. Despite his decade-old, constantly stated ambition to “meet Lars,” Tom’s condition is a steep hill to climb to make that happen.
Mission to Lars is not really about Metallica or even Fragile X Syndrome (except in the specific ways it manifests in Will), but rather the difficulties — the often hard, tiring work — of relating to a loved one with a mental disability. The siblings have to attend three Metallica shows before Tom is finally able to meet Lars. The difficulty lies not in scaling the corporate barricade brand Metallica has erected around itself — everyone on Team Metallica seems exceedingly accommodating — but in getting Tom to a place where he feels comfortable tackling this scary new experience.
Kate and Will are upfront about the fact that they have drifted away from Tom as they’ve gotten older. This mission is, in some ways, borne of guilt, and, at various points, Kate and Will seem ill-suited to the task they’ve set for themselves. Will sometimes comes off as aloof and needlessly aggressive, while Kate can come off as ineffectual, too aware of her own doubts. But, with perseverance they do manage to arrange a meeting. While Mission to Lars unsurprisingly climaxes with Tom’s joyous meeting with Lars, during which Lars plays the drums just for Tom and even invites Tom to walk out to the stage with the band, the moment is only meaningful because we’ve seen what a struggle it is to get Tom to that point.
As a piece of filmmaking, Mission to Lars is basic but effective. There are any number of ways this movie could have gone wrong — too much schmaltz, too much forced narrative, too in thrall to Metallica’s corporate machine — but Will Spicer, co-directing with James Moore, focuses the film on the nitty-gritty details of getting Tom to Lars, the countless roadblocks Tom’s condition puts in his way. There are times when I even questioned whether all this was worth it since Tom just didn’t seem that into it. Maybe this was something Will and Kate had inflated to assuage their own guilt about drifting away from Tom? Or, thinking more cynically, maybe they were exploiting their own brother for the purposes of making an inspiring documentary?
Mission to Lars’s ending makes clear that this isn’t the case; this is something Will really, really wanted. But it finishes up a little too abruptly. Will meets Lars, walks out with the band, they play “Enter Sandman” and that’s it (other than a bit of extra footage running alongside the credits). What effect did this meeting have on Will? Does he still talk about it? And did the adventure really bring Kate and Will closer to Tom? I realize these questions are impossible to answer in any depth within the confines of a documentary, and maybe they’re completely unanswerable. But given that Mission to Lars runs only 74 minutes, it feels like something is missing. It’s about the journey, not the destination. But it’s also about how that journey changes us, and that’s what Mission to Lars leaves out.