Nine To Ninety

89 year-old Phyllis challenges her family by making a surprising decision about end-of-life care.
Year Released
Film Length(s)
29 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


89 year-old Phyllis challenges the taboo of talking about death as she and her family make a surprising decision about end-of-life care. This beautiful, intimate short documentary provokes critical questions about how to grow old with dignity in America.

Featured review

I loved the film, start to finish. It was a pleasure getting to know the family featured in Nine To Ninety. Families are such remarkable organisms, with all of their unpredictable and frequently unfathomable working parts, and the film captures both the expected and the unexpected feelings and actions of families who are actually in a state of decent communication with each other. The filmmakers' respect for the family shines through even as they candidly reveal the challenging decisions that each person makes. Nine To Ninety has great teaching potential because it requires the viewer to form their own opinions rather than laying it all out there. That method of teaching, we know, has far greater and longer lasting impact than telling". A remarkable work.
Pamelyn Close
M.D., M.P.H., Former Section Chief, Adult and Pediatric Palliative Medicine, USC


Nine To Ninety is the love story of Phyllis and Joe Sabatini, who at age 89 and 90 live in the home of their daughter and son-in-law, where they relish time with their young granddaughter Jacqueline. But as the family struggles to make ends meet and the grandparents’ health problems escalate, Phyllis becomes determined to free her daughter from the burden of caring for everyone from nine to ninety. When Phyllis makes a difficult decision to move 3,000 miles away to live with their other daughter, she faces parting from Joe, her husband of 62 years. While Joe has become resigned to his ailments, Phyllis yearns to live with agency and independence even with limited resources, and the couple’s surprising choices ignite bigger conversations about how to age with dignity.


There are numerous opportunities throughout the film that lend themselves to class discussion. The final scene with 89 year-old Phyllis Sabatini is a really teachable moment in the classroom for anyone (e.g., me) who uses Eriksonian stages to scaffold adult development. Clearly, the relationships within the family are critical as is the grandfather¹s decision to have dialysis. That alone could spark good conversation about Medicare and health care issues at the end of life. I also liked how the couple¹s relationship was captured realistically, i.e., it was portrayed with the challenges and not as a perfect marriage.
Regina Lopata Logan
Ph.D. Research Assistant Professor, School of Education and Social Policy Director, Foley Longitudinal Study of Adulthood Foley Center for the Study of Lives Northwestern University
This film provides a fascinating case study of the communication issues faced by families caring for an older family member. It demonstrates the challenges in managing conflict, and some of the ethical dilemmas that multiple generations of the family confront. It reflects numerous dimensions of the academic research on caregiving, including the research on maintaining control and independence in whatever elements of life you can. This is conveyed so well in the moment when Phyllis says, "It's nice when you can help yourself." The film captures a huge amount of insight on that time of life in a very short package. I plan on using the film in undergraduate classes on communication across the lifespan.
Jake Harwood
Professor Department of Communication University of Arizona
The Educator Guide is informative, thoughtful, offers many options for discussion. As an instructor myself in this area, I appreciate it and will use in my courses.
Rick Scheidt
Ph.D. Associate Editor, The Gerontologist, Professor and Coordinator, Lifespan Human Development Unit School of Family Studies and Human Services Chair, K.S.U. Institutional Review Board Kansas State University
The film engages the audience from the start with the life stories of engaged older adults who have learned how to age well.
— Douglas Edwards Director of Church Outreach
— Douglas Edwards Director of Church Outreach
We found Nine to Ninety to be an insightful and beautifully shot film with sweet and moving characters. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to screen the film at the festival and to such incredible audience response.
Charlotte Cook
Director of Programming HotDocs Film Festival, Toronto, Canada

Awards and Screenings

Hot Docs - Official Selection, 2013
USA Film Festival – First Place Non-Fiction Award , 2013
Heartland Film Festival – Official Selection , 2013
IDA International Documentary Awards – Best Short Nomination , 2013

Director Commentary

Nine To Ninety is one of several documentaries I have directed that center on family dynamics. My first film was about my own family arguing about religion, and I discovered that my story-telling passion lies in intimate character-based explorations of a theme. More recently I was able to develop my approach with Xmas Without China (SXSW, PBS, Al Jazeera), about two families wrestling with consumerism. "A surprising, sweet, funny documentary that provokes without sermons," (James V. Grimaldi, The Wall Street Journal) Xmas Without China gave me an opportunity to play with humor, winning us a “Best Comedy” award at the 2013 Friar’s Club Film Festival. Nine To Ninety, about a family dealing with aging, shares the intimacy of these films, and is formally my purest exploration of cinema vérité storytelling so far, eschewing expert testimony or archival footage in favor of finding the film completely in the footage we filmed with the family as their story unfolded.

Producer Juli Vizza came to me with the idea for the film about her own family and when we began to film them, I quickly realized that the heart of the story for me is Juli’s grandparents Phyllis and Joe Sabatini. Their aging affects their whole family and I was intrigued by the dynamics of this closely-knit Italian-American clan, but it was Phyllis who emerged as the main character. Phyllis is charming, plainspoken and a firecracker, and I was struck by how she was so actively engaged in trying to make very difficult decisions about her life, a life so entwined with that of her husband Joe and the lives of their younger family members. She faces the deepest questions of love, responsibility, burden, loss and grace in her own way, and I sought, with my team, to capture something of her heroic journey. Her surprising decision to part with her husband of 62 years is wrenching, and deeply unsettling for some viewers, and it is my hope that this challenges us to action – to start the converations in our own families that need to be had about end of life care, death and caretaking; to envision the society we want for our aging loved ones, our caregivers, our families; and to demand and contribute to a sea change of policies, resources and support to enable all of us to age with dignity.

I am indebted to Juli and her family for letting us be with them with a camera at such a difficult time, and to cinematographer/co-producer Michael Dwyer for his incredible eye, his passion and discernment. Filming with Michael and sound mixer Jesse Dwyer, my brothers, is a particular joy for me, and is instrumental in allowing the intimacy with which we are able to film another family. Love also to brilliant editor Kate Amend and composer John Kirby for bringing the film alive with us in post-production.

50 million Americans live in multigenerational households – 40% more than in1990. With life expectancies increasing, our aging population is growing to historic rates at the same time that most families in the US are losing ground economically. I hope our film brings into focus what this means for real people like Phyllis Sabatini and her family – and that we can follow her courageous lead when she exclaims, “We’ve got to talk about it!”

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • Director's Commentary
  • Resources for Educators

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

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