'Sole Survivor' explores a small fraternity ★★★

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With most stories, even most documentaries, survival is the happy ending — the reward for one's luck, or skill, or exceptional circumstances. "Sole Survivor," Ky Dickens' nonfiction account of four sole survivors of commercial plane crashes, turns that notion on its head, exploring the depths of survivor guilt and the post-accident lives of these living exceptions to a terrible, fatal rule.

Dickens will introduce her documentary at three of this week's Siskel Film Center showings, and she'll likely have some stories to tell about what it took to capture the truest feelings of her interview subjects, all very different, all connected by a single thread. George Lamson walked away from a disastrous Reno-to-Minneapolis charter flight. The film's emotional centerpiece is a meeting between Lamson and Bahia Bakari, a teenager his own daughter's age, the survivor of an Indian Ocean plane crash.

In 2006 co-pilot Jim Polehinke woke up from a coma to learn he was the single living remnant of a fatal Kentucky crash. The National Transportation and Safety Board determined, controversially, that pilot error was the primary cause. Filmmaker Dickens clearly thinks that call was cruelly mistaken. The widow of the other pilot says, on camera, that it's "a blessing" her husband didn't survive. He wouldn't have been able to live with the casualties, she says.

The fourth subject here, Cecelia Cichan, was only 4 at the time of her crash, and has stayed clear of the media spotlight. Despite the potential "ick" factor of any documentary on this sort of subject, Dickens treats these people well. There are times when you wish she'd stuck with a particular conversation longer, and the musical score by Franck Rapp is awful — a sentimental drone, cueing us inadvertently to quit listening to these people's stories. But the stories win out.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Sole Survivor" - 3 stars

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1:31

Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center

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