It’s never a bad thing to see more films written and directed by women, especially during Feminist February. This week’s pick stars and was co-written by Netflix legend Alison Brie (of GLOW, BoJack, and the show we don’t talk about on Netflix, Community). Qualification for Feminist February met. Qualification for fun evening of light entertainment? Er…very much dependent on your definition of fun.
A familial history of mental illness and increasingly paranoid conspiracy theories take over the life of a quiet craft store employee and horse enthusiast.
A quiet woman who keeps to herself, Sarah is a craft store employee by day, obsessive fan of the TV show Purgatory by night, and lover of horses at all hours. Though she is friendly with boss Molly Shannon and roommate Nikki, Sarah prefers to keep some distance between herself and others. At any given moment, it seems Sarah would much rather be spending time with the horse she used to ride or with her favorite TV characters.
When her birthday shakes her out of the usual routine, Sarah meets Darren, a friend of Nikki’s boyfriend. Both Sarah and Darren are rather awkward, with Darren droning on incessantly about concept albums and his horrible ex. Sarah, meanwhile, has been experiencing more and more strange symptoms–one of which is a nosebleed during their date. But Darren thinks Sarah is cute, and Sarah considers his name–shared with one of the lead characters of Purgatory–a sign that they’re meant to be.
After drinking too much and throwing up, Sarah has a strange dream in which she’s lying in a white room, two people sleeping on either side of her. When she wakes up the next morning, there are strange scratches on the walls, though Sarah has no recollection of how they got there.
Odd incidents begin happening more frequently during Sarah’s waking and dreaming life. Her car is stolen and, when it is found, the facts don’t quite add up. The key is in the car’s ignition, and the steering wheel lock sits unlocked on the passenger seat. Worried about the increasing number of times Sarah is forgetting things, she fears the mental illnesses that overtook her mother and grandmother’s lives may affect her too.
The alternative explanation that Sarah begins to embrace is that she is losing time due to alien abduction, and her vivid dreams are not dreams at all. Because she looks so much like her grandmother, Sarah begins to believe she is a clone created by aliens. When she sees the man from her dream in real life, Sarah becomes convinced her theory is the truth and is obsessed with tracking him down. She even goes as far as hiring his company to do unnecessary pipe replacement and follows him to his home one evening.
When she meets Darren for another date, Sarah begins explaining her theories to him, and their discussion turns more broadly to conspiracies. It’s only when Sarah shows Darren her mother’s grave and tells him they need to dig her up to compare their DNA that he realizes how deeply she believes in her own conspiracy theories.
After performing a series of rituals at home to trick the aliens, Sarah wanders into the craft store completely naked. She is taken into a psychiatric care facility, but only becomes more convinced that she’s been right all along during her stay there, and less able to distinguish between reality and dreams. Will psychiatric care help Sarah be well at this point…and does she even want to?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Alison Brie deserves so much credit for this role–as with many of the characters she plays, here a seemingly innocuous person is more complex and disturbed than she initially appears. Brie makes Sarah a sympathetic character whose odd behavior at the beginning of the film merely scratches the surface on the delusions and feelings she experiences later. And the extreme thoughts and feelings Sarah has are out of touch with reality, but they never feel laughable–they are unquestionably real to her.
This concept is what makes the film so compelling, and at times scary to watch. It’s very interested in asking to what extent biology is destiny: does the mental illness or trauma we inherit from our families predict our own dysfunction? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to manage mental illness? Sarah’s delusions seem to give her a sense of real conviction for the first time in her life. It seems likely that her dedication to the show Purgatory and need for her life to have some sort of narrative structure plays a role in her willingness to believe in her own version of reality. But would her DNA have led her down the same path regardless?
The film itself can be difficult to follow at times, as its structure is somewhat loose, and uses this to blur the lines between dream and reality (and, honestly, the tone is quite wonky as well). This quality does keep things interesting as we continue to hope Sarah can heal; however, it’s increasingly impossible to imagine an ending in which she finds both peace and clarity. I feel fairly certain this film will haunt anyone who has experienced mental illness.