Dec 13

“The Art of Misdiagnosis”: Investigating a Mom’s Suicide

All I can really do is write my own misdiagnosis of your life. Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis

So states Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, in this brief trailer to her new book:

The book’s title takes its name from the documentary Brandeis’s 70-year-old mother Arlene was working on “about the rare illnesses she thought ravaged her family: porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.”

“Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not,” states Kirkus Reviews, “Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder.” (See this link and this one for definitions of these conditions.)

In an interview with Mutha Magazine, Brandeis states the following about the origins of her book The Art of Misdiagnosis:

My therapist suggested writing a letter to my mom (such great advice!) and that became a thread of the book. The time around her suicide begged to be told in present tense. And as I dug through our old emails and files and the like, certain pieces jumped out at me as needing to be part of the narrative. It took a lot of time and finessing to fit the puzzle pieces together, but the pieces revealed themselves to me with bells on.

What was going on for Brandeis when she lost her mom? Melissa Wuske, Foreword Reviews:

Brandeis’s mother committed suicide one week after Brandeis had a baby. Those deeply contrasting experiences set the scene for the opening of this memoir: a daughter going through her mother’s things, trying to make sense of her death.

And this quest winds up involving a “compulsive, contagious need to know her mother and herself.”

As author Nick Flynn writes in his review: “John Cassavetes offers this: ‘When a character can’t find his way home, that’s where the story begins…’ Gayle Brandeis begins her story where it ends, then slowly—thoughtfully, painfully, lovingly—works her way back. It all circles around a handful of days, where everything happens—birth, death, truth, transformation.”

More about the overall process Brandeis experienced, from Kirkus Reviews:

Desperate for answers, she and her sister fruitlessly scoured their mother’s bedroom, which, much like the woman herself, appeared ‘lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath.’ The author’s reality soon became even more complex: she wrestled with the grief of her mother’s sudden death, processed her complicated history of paranoia, suspicion, and delusions, and nurtured her newborn. This frustration bleeds into the text as Brandeis recounts episodes where her mother’s inexplicable accusations wreaked havoc on her pregnancy and her marriage. The author then reveals her mother’s history of psychosis, which seemed to stem from the author’s pregnancies, with which Arlene became obsessed.

Author Caroline Leavitt‘s review:

Deeply compassionate, and breathtakingly brave, Brandeis’ memoir is a raw, unflinching trip down a rabbit hole, unspooling both the chaotic life of her mentally unbalanced mother, and how her mother’s obsession with physical illness crash-landed Brandeis’ own life—and health—from girlhood to marriage and motherhood. About the stories we desperately need to make of our lives in order to survive, and how the body sometimes speaks what the mind dare not, this is also an extraordinarily moving portrait of a troubled mother, and of the daughter who fearlessly, poetically, writes her way into discovering her truest self. Truthfully, I am in awe.

On her website Brandeis provides resources for others dealing with suicide. 

Aug 26

“Tallulah”: Three Wayward Women and a Baby

At its heart,Tallulah is about three women who think themselves unfit for parenthood for wildly different reasons, and while writer-director Sian Heder is unafraid to explore their many flaws, she fortunately refrains from passing judgment or drawing simplistic, moralizing conclusions. David Sims, The Atlantic

Sian Heder, a writer for Orange Is the New Black, is also the creative force behind a Netflix original film, available for streaming, called Tallulah. And for its “(t)hemes of motherhood, abandonment, loss, family and female identity…plumbed to their depths” (Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times), it’s well worth the watch.

More from Walsh about the plot in brief:

Heder…reached into her own life experiences to write and direct the film, starring Ellen Page in the titular role as a nomadic young woman who has no attachments to any place or thing. She does, however, have a knack for attaching herself to people — her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), Nico’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney), and a baby she accidentally babysits, then accidentally kidnaps, in a good faith effort to keep her safe.

David Sims, The Atlantic, with more details:

…As the film begins, [her] relationship falls apart, and Tallulah finds herself in New York, stealing from fancy hotel rooms while posing as a housekeeper. There, she meets Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a permanently wasted socialite who seems obviously neglectful of her one-year-old daughter; in a moment of vigilante justice, Tallulah snatches the baby and begins pretending it’s her daughter…

Margo and Tallulah eventually form a bond, and life lessons are learned—that Margo should take more risks, that Tallulah can see the value of family and more traditional domesticity. But every time it seems that Tallulah is swerving into conventional Hallmark-movie territory, Heder does something unexpected. Rather than dropping Carolyn’s story once her baby is taken, the film zooms in on her grief, letting the audience feel the consequences of Tallulah’s actions. In a film of strong performances, Blanchard is probably the biggest surprise…

The trailer’s below:

Most critics agree that the acting rises above all else. Geoff Berkshire, Variety:

Page is simply superb in a complex role that perfectly plays to her gift for balancing deadpan comedy with surprisingly deep emotional reserves. And while she was a sterling support opposite Page in ‘Juno,’ Janney rises here nearly to the level of co-lead as an uptight control freak whose desire to cling to her family only serves to push them away.

Reliable character actress Blanchard is perhaps the biggest revelation, playing Carolyn at first as a spot-on parody of a certain kind of real housewife of self-absorption, but gradually peeling back her layers — in collaboration with Heder — to reveal the wounded woman underneath.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: “…(I)f there were an Oscar for best performance by children too young to know they’re in a movie, the twins playing this baby (Liliana and Evangeline Ellis) would be a shoo-in.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “And when Uzo Aduba of ‘Orange’ turns up as a drily capable (and pregnant) child-services officer, Heder’s portrait gallery of motherhood — good, flawed, accidental, just trying to make it through the day — is complete.”

Autostraddle: “Lunch with Margo’s gay ex-husband [John Benjamin Hickey] and his new partner [Zachary Quinto] is one of the best scenes in the film, sketching a whole universe and providing a window into Margo and her husband’s marriage without trying to give more information than the audience can handle.”

Selected Tallulah Reviews

Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times: “Even if the tale is a bit much to be believed at times, it’s unlikely you’ll see a film more refreshingly honest and incisive about motherhood than ‘Tallulah’.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “Heder’s approach is reminiscent of her terrific work on ‘Orange’ in numerous ways — from a boundless compassion for women’s hidden stories to the graceful mix of smart comedy and human drama.”

Scott Tobias, NPR: “That Heder’s warts-and-all vision of maternal ambivalence lacks focus and concision seems partly by design, a refusal to oversimplify these women for the sake of narrative expedience. They’re screwed up. They’re good-hearted. They’re human.”

Sep 19

“This Is Where I Leave You”: Therapists Won’t Like This

Welcome Home. Get uncomfortable. Tagline for This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You is the type of star-studded dysfunctional-family dramedy you might get kinda excited about after seeing the previews:

But then you find the disappointing reviews. Many say it’s a predictable and not-funny-enough, not good-enough script—adapted, incidentally, by Jonathan Tropper himself, the author of the 2009 best-selling novel.

Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters, sums it all up: “Girls want babies, boys want reassurance, girls nurture, boys need to wander. Dad is dead. Long live formula.”

Despite this, you dig even deeper into what the critics are saying. Alas, you find out that not one, but two, therapists are (once again) depicted badly.

More About the Plot and Characters

Rodrigo Perez, IndieWire, describes “the doyenne of the household” (Jane Fonda) as “an audacious TMI-sharing psychiatrist whose bestselling book exploited her own family’s dysfunction for her gain, much to their resentment.” Fonda’s character Hillary posits, “Secrets are a cancer to a family.”

Here’s a rundown of the rest of the brood, per Perez:

…(O)f course the family in question is composed of nondescript characters and recognizable stereotypes. Bateman once again appears in his favorite role: the perpetually exasperated ‘rational’ guy who has to navigate his neurotic and irrational family. There’s Paul (Corey Stoll), the older resentful brother who can’t get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip (Adam Driver), the baby of the family, is an unreliable, juvenile shithead who’s now dating his cougar-esque ex-therapist (Connie Britton). Wendy [Tina Fey] has two kids, a neglectful, asshole workaholic husband (Aaron Lazar), and still pines for an old boyfriend who suffers from a head injury that’s made him slow (Timothy Olyphant). Rose Byrne co-stars as a girl from Judd’s past that just might be the woman he needs now (how opportune!). Unsurprisingly, no one’s happy, everyone’s dealing with different levels of pain and hardship, and that’s life, right?

Although viewers know Hillary’s adult kids aren’t happy with their mom’s oversharing, specifically how other family members react to Phillip’s new relationship and/or to the boundary-breaking therapist he’s seeing is info I couldn’t find.

Chris Nashawaty, ew.com, concludes the following, however, about the various characters’ representations: “The movie is so festooned with clichés it proves that Tolstoy was dead wrong when he wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This clan is just like the one in August: Osage County (or Home For the Holidays or The Family Stone), only with more eye-rolling one-liners about Jane Fonda’s cantaloupe-sized breast implants. It’s a misfire that’s especially confounding considering that you couldn’t ask for a more promising cast of brother-and-sister bickerers.”

Overall Reviews

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “You laugh in spite of yourself in This Is Where I Leave You, a potty-mouthed comedy with enough exasperation, aggravations, long-standing grievances and get-me-outta-here moments of family stress to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to endure large clan gatherings that might have lasted a bit too long.”

Rodrigo PerezIndieWire: “Too bland to be memorable, too painless to hate, the slight ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ is like a forgettable breeze. While ultimately disposable, with almost nothing insightful to say about family, at least the movie has the decency and self-respect to not grovel or beg you to love it.”

Zachary Wigon, Village Voice: “The most charitable thing you can say about This Is Where I Leave You is that it is resolutely innocuous — a nothing of a movie, neutered and sanitary. Its subject, perhaps unintentionally, is the inexhaustible narcissism of affluent white people, who here mope and moan their way through various break-ups and infidelities.”

Scott Foundas, Variety: “Sitting shiva makes the heart grow fonder (and the libido rage and the repressed grievances runneth over) in ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ a sprawling ensemble dramedy that starts out like a full-tilt sit-com and gradually migrates to a place of genuine feeling.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The actors all seem lost and jittery. The direction seems phoned in while waiting in line at some suburban ATM machine. If you crave freshness, originality or quality, cherish the decision to pass up This Is Where I Leave You and be content with the knowledge that you didn’t miss a thing.”

Sep 12

“Clutter”: A Movie to Rent About Compulsive Hoarding

I recently heard of a movie called Clutter that’s now available on demand via various outlets. Prairie Miller, News Blaze, introduces its star: “Carol Kane is Linda, the charmingly charismatic compulsive hoarder in question…[who] was ironically abandoned long ago by her garbageman spouse.”

The film as described on IMDB:

Charlie Bradford [Joshua Leonard], an aspiring filmmaker in his 30s, is doing the best he can to distance himself from the chaos of his childhood home. But his eccentric mother Linda, a compulsive hoarder who suffers from depression punctuated by spells of manic consumption, has a tendency to keep the people and things she loves close at hand. Charlie’s younger sisters still live at home with Linda: Lisa [Natasha Lyonne], the older of the two has a history of petty theft and works as a home healthcare aid, and Penny [Halley Feiffer], who is trying to overcome her agonizing shyness is starting a a new career as a home stager in a beleaguered real estate market. When a water stain on the family’s garage door is interpreted as an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, the house attracts the unwanted attention of the neighbors…and the county health department, which gives the Bradfords a week to clean up their act or lose their home. As the family attempts to clear its clutter, long-buried resentment and grief begin to surface, forcing each of them to face what it is they value most in life.

More specifics from John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “When Linda’s house is condemned, she is secretly moved into a model home whose interiors were ‘staged’ by Penny. Before you can find an episode of Hoarders on your DVR, she’s working to fill empty space in her new home as well. As Charlie and his sisters clear out the garbage in their childhood home, he’s also working on a memoir-doc that traces all his problems back to the day Dad left without saying goodbye.”

Michael Nordine, Village Voice: “The question of why, how, and when we reach our breaking points with those closest to us is central to Diane Crespo’s film, as is the difficulty and necessity of reconciling in the aftermath.”

The trailer:

As there are few reviews, I rely on the same critics already cited for some conclusions.

Michael Nordine, Village Voice:

The details of this family’s slow unraveling are so specific they almost feel autobiographical, and as a result occasionally insular; we’re thrust into their problems like a therapist mid-session.

We get a glimpse of who these people are and what makes them tick, but never know them in a way that helps us truly understand them or become especially invested in finding out what became of them.

Prairie Miller, News Blaze: “Clutter pays careful attention to each of these thwarted, deeply scarred family members, candidly opening up with raw feeling their long festering psychological scars – but always nonjudgmentally and with abundant empathy. While deciphering with patient clarify and sensitivity, the many layers dwelling beneath the emotional meaning of material things as well.”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Leonard finds enough believable sadness in his role to make the script’s on-the-nose metaphors more poignant than they may deserve to be, but little else in the film is up to the level of Kane’s committed, unshowy performance. Production and costume design further a stylized atmosphere that makes the drama difficult to take seriously.”

For info on how to rent or buy the film, please refer to the movie’s website.

Jul 11

“Boyhood”: A Young Man Develops Over the Course of 12 Real Years

Boyhood follows the development of a young man within his family and environment over the course of 12 real years, a unique way to film a non-documentary. To pull this off, in fact, director Richard Linklater took quite the gamble that all his actors would remain available over this period.

The boy in question is Mason (Ellar Coltrane). His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. In addition, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei makes her acting debut playing Mason’s sister Samantha.

Although the film clocks in at 164 minutes, the critics don’t seem to mind—they’ve actually been heaping high praise.

THE PLOT

Peter Howell, Toronto Star: “Boyhood is a narrative drama, but it unfolds like documentary truth. Coltrane plays a Texas boy named Mason who is trying to grow up normally in a family tested by divorce, alcoholism and other life stresses.”

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “…Boyhood is an epic about the ordinary: growing up, the banality of family life, and forging an identity. Everything here has been seen in movies and on television countless times before — marital spats, a divorced dad trying to connect with kids he sporadically sees, teenagers acting out, parents having to let go — but perhaps never has the long arc of the journey from childhood to college been portrayed as cohesively and convincingly as Richard Linklater has done in a film that can be plain on a moment-to-moment basis but is something quite special in its entirety.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Everything and nothing happens over the course of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood.’”

Take a peek at the trailer:

THE PARENTS

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

They’re a couple who got married too young and have already hit Splitsville by the time we meet them, and both people are flawed and complicated characters for whom we feel immense compassion. Mason Sr. is in most respects a better dad than the sequence of abusive, alcoholic husbands Olivia tries out later, but he’s also an irresponsible GTO-driving Peter Pan type, who wants all the most dramatic parts of fatherhood without putting in the work. Our sympathy flows most naturally toward Olivia, an undeniably heroic single mom with a pattern of dubious decision-making. Part questing spirit and part nesting instinct, she keeps pushing her kids around the Lone Star State in search of an elusive dream of normalcy and stability, before understanding she must create and define those things for herself.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Whenever Olivia finds a decent man, she marries him, until such time that his temper becomes too much to bear. The first of these separations brings dramatic fireworks early in the film, rendered all the more intense by the fact that Mason and Samantha are forced to leave their new siblings behind with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella).”

RESILIENCE OF THE KIDS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “With all the geographic, educational, parental and emotional adjustments Mason and Samantha are forced to make, they do pretty well, all things considered…With all the childhood traumas, extreme behavior and tragedies that have been depicted in both narrative and documentary films over the last couple of decades, it’s both bracing and refreshing to see more normal (if far from ideal) youthful experience represented in such a nonmelodramatic and credible way.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Parents with grown kids in the audience will likely be the most affected emotionally by “Boyhood,” which culminates with Mason leaving the nest, as seen through the eyes of all those who watched him grow up. As the moment sinks in, Olivia cries, “I just thought there would be more,” and she may as well be speaking on behalf of all the younger viewers…”

Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “It’s lovingly assembled and acted with such grace and ease that it scarcely looks like acting at all. Midway through the film, I found myself wondering whether I’d ever seen anything remotely resembling it before. Except that of course I have; we all have. Simply look at your own family; it’s happening all over. People screw up and make good. They grow bum-fluff beards and fall in love and there’s never any resolution, just more full-speed forward motion.”

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: “Unshakable, witty and deeply felt, the film will be paying emotional dividends for a long, long time.”