Writer, director, and director Alex Heller’s debut feature is a fictional spin on the very crisis she went through at age 19, when she dropped out of college and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Not the most heavy-handed on-screen treatment for a serious mental health problem, this mindless, self-deprecating portrayal achieves a degree of poignancy and depth within a distinct sensibility you might call Midwestern sardonic. After a festival run, it will open in limited theaters and on demand on March 3.
Clemens Miller (Heller) yells “train wreck” from the first moment we see her dragging a garbage bag across campus, fighting off anyone who crosses her path. She then directs that alienated energy at her terrified roommate (Taylor Marie Plame), who says, “You’re ruining my college experience!” It turns out that the roommate had informed Clem’s mother that she had escalated into “hoarding, stealing, paranoia, and screaming.” Ergo Cherry (J.
A psychiatrist (Waltrudis Buck) quickly determined that Klem was bipolar—a condition that often manifests itself in early adulthood—and ordered an all-lotta lithium-led pill regimen to balance her alternating bouts of mania and depression. But this cocktail requires experimental adjustments, as the side effects can be just as annoying as the symptoms. Meanwhile, our blunt, confrontational, and unfiltered heroine receives a mixed welcome from her family, who move their eldest daughter into the basement, her old bedroom already repurposed as a home office.
Father Don (Steve Buscemi) is a local schoolteacher whose cheerful demeanor stubbornly masks a weary horror. Craft shop owner Sherry rises to this latest domestic challenge, but she doesn’t bring endless patience to the table–it turns out she has big problems of her own to deal with. Clem’s siblings aren’t thrilled at her return: For uptight academic slugger Carlene (Emily Robinson), distracting drama can only lower her SAT score, while teenage jock Nell (White Olive) tries to ignore her presence altogether.
However, Clem is making an effort…more or less. She attends scheduled sessions with a therapist (John Hudson Odom) and takes a part-time job at a thrift store, trying to make friends with initially resistant co-worker Beth (Kiana Simone). She dutifully ditches non-prescription drugs and alcohol, at least until reconnecting with former partying partner Ashik (Rajeev Jacob). Her fall off the wagon peak in the closest thing to “The Year Between” should be a set piece: a shattered teenage home where much of the cast watches Clem (her self-shaved head temporarily covered in a long blonde wig) an impressive sight of herself.
Heller, as an actress or filmmaker, doesn’t make it easy to like her on-screen ego, as Clem is clearly challenged with empathy. As others have repeatedly pointed out, she is capable of making almost anything “all about me,” not ruling out a cancer diagnosis in a relative. But she’s also funny in a deadpan, girl-brother way (complete with frequent use of “dude”), and the movie never feels harsh in its treatment of her or anyone else. Her coping mechanisms are the same – and so are everyone else who deals with her.
Every character here has an eccentric personality that’s well defined in the on-line shows. They’re all entertaining, yet devoid of cartoonishness, and the snarky dynamics between them feel lively without being cynical. If “The Year Between” risks feeling a little rushed and underdeveloped – particularly in Clem seeing the light at the end of her tunnel – it’s mostly because we can easily spend more time with these people than the runtime allows.
Stylistically, too, Heller’s debut is full of quirky ideas without being too flashy, lest it overshadow a subject matter that is taken seriously despite its superficial grunt. This extends from the varied visual strategies in Jason Chew’s cinematography to the refreshing narrative shorthand provided by editor Harrison Atkins’ multiple montage sequences. There are clever inputs from production designers Carrie Allen and Chris Garcia, while the soundtrack fosters an air of off-kilter humor across both Kotomi’s original score and Linda Perry’s music supervisor for mostly female artists from Olivia Newton-John to YouTube singer Poppy (additionally ) her late rock outfit 4 other than blondes).
The result is a wholesome mix of pseudo-randomness and finely honed that refuses to wriggle out of Clem’s troubles, while at the same time offering an optimistic case for coming out of it unscathed–even if she’s never a miss.
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