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.”

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.comconcludes 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.”

Selected 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.”

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.”

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.”

Jan 13

“August: Osage County”–A Strong Film Adaptation

Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for the semi-autobiographical Broadway play he’s now adapted for the screen. As described on IMDB, the film August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, is “(a) look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.”

Although the movie is the only version I’ve seen, it’s easy to envision how the play would also have powerfully and rivetingly revealed the various layers of family stuff involved. One who actually can make the comparison to the original, Scott FoundasVariety, concludes, “…(T)his two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.”

When alcoholic poet Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing just days after he hires young Johnna (Misty Upham) to help take care of the house and his pill-popping cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep), the latter turns to her adult kids. There’s the middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the one who’s stayed nearby; the eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), who brings her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) from Colorado; and the flighty, self-involved Karen (Juliette Lewis), who lives in Florida and is recently engaged to slick and sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Also on the scene are Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper) and their adult though seemingly emotionally stunted son (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Very little is seen of Beverly, by the way, who early on is found to have drowned himself. It’s the intensely dramatic interactions among different constellations of family members following the funeral that comprise the meat of the movie. Fortunately, there are sufficient doses of intermittent humor as well.

Watch the trailer for August: Osage County below:

More About Matriarch Violet

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “It’s both ironic and tragic that she’s suffering from mouth cancer. Her mouth burns and her tongue feels as if it’s on fire, she insists, but that doesn’t stop her from spewing verbal venom.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “…(S)he’s so drugged up on pharmaceuticals that it’s hard to say where the medicine leaves off and the self-medicating begins.”

Some Family Dynamics

Ian BuckwalterNPR: “Everyone here has pain, everyone has secrets, and while we join these characters for a short time, it’s easy to see that the cycles of lies, distrust, and abuse go back for generations, clinging to this family like the hot summer dust of the empty plains that surround them.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “This is a story about people bonded by blood but doing what they must to destroy each other—partly out of fear and panic, but also out of twisted love. The more they reveal about themselves, and each other, the more they come to realize how they don’t know each other at all. In the stifling angst of an unbearable Oklahoma August, they merely occupy the same space in a house of strangers.”

Overview of August: Osage County

Owen Gleibermanew.com: “The fights, insults, and sadistic parent-child mind games, the powerhouse acting that shades into overacting (though I’ll be damned if you could say exactly when)…the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value.”

The Writer, Tracy Letts, Speaks

Letts, interviewed on NPR, believes the material asks these ultimate questions: “Do you have a choice? Are you your brother’s keeper? When does your responsibility to your family end, and when should your responsibility to yourself take over?”

In an article in Slant, Letts states the following about another key element:

…I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s ‘running things now’ was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: ‘Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.’ As opposed to allowing people to make their own choices, for good or ill.