Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 22, 2021 6:38 am 
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A vivid portrait of life disrupted by mental illness

This a film about schizophrenia, from the point of view of the younger brother who has had to deal with his sister's mental illness since he was young. Now, the twenty-something Scott (Ben Platt) has imminent plans to move to Paris and write a novel. But his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke)'s disease has other plans. The sudden death of their father, together with Cindy's expulsion from the mental health facility she has been living in, means Cindy is Scott's full-time responsibility just when he was hoping to ease away from it.

Not so important what happens here, though the question whether Scott will be able to depart for Paris or not is suspenseful. The essential element of the film is its depiction of what it's like to be involved with a family member who has schizophrenia. In lively, personal form, this is an instructional film about living with mental illness. This is underlined when the film ends with footage of a real life support group for people living with mentally ill family members. Steve Waverly's screenplay was written from personal experience.

This is a worthwhile subject, but the general public won't usually want to go for entertainment to an instructional film. It's only incidentally that, though. Ben Platt, who won the Best Actor Award for his lead performance in the multiple Tony-Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, the musical that opened on Broadway five years ago (and which Platt reprises in a film version opening in September), and an equally fresh and lively performance as Cindy by Lola Kirke, who starred in Noah Bamubach's Greta Gerwig-scripted Mistress America (2015), are two appealing and gifted actors who make every scene come to life.

Early on one feels as if the film is continually trying to make light of matters that seem disastrous. This may gibe with Cindy's quirky point of view and Scott's experienced one, and also seems designed to ease us, the viewers, into an experience that is deeply troubling and difficult to deal with. But it may impair our ability to take matters seriously, for a while, anyway.

Some new insights for me came with time. According to the mental health facility director whom Scott consults when Cindy disappears, schizophrenic patients sometimes feel powerless as well as numbed when on meds. It is also to be noted that the meds tone down the voices but don't eliminate them. The voices make patients feel stronger, anyway, and this is a reason they go off the meds, so the facility director tells Scott. Efforts to set Cindy up in a menial job, which all fail in the interview stage, show the difficulty and heartbreak of trying to reinstate a family member with schizophrenia in the functional world.

A major subplot is paradoxically, the lead's. The storyline looks at how the central character has been continually forced into a peripheral position. Scott says he got his first pimple on the way to a mental hospital and this symbolizes the way his life has revolved around his sister's. He hasn't had much chance to look at his problems. Here, he tends to deny he has them, when Cindy's shrink urges him to consider therapy for himself. The support group is a kind of solution. So may becoming a full-fledged writer. But someone whose life has been derailed by a sibling, who has taken precedence over serious parental conflicts, has issues he or she needs help with.

Ben Platt is an engaging actor who attracts our sympathies throughout. Lola Kirke has the more complex role, which requires conveying the many personality facets of her character, which range from "normal" to "completely crazy," and slip back and forth among them. While avoiding stereotype or artificiality, Kirke performs this creditably. A more searching film might have delved deeper into Cindy's mind and further explored the whole trajectory of a woman who, as an encounter 15 years later with a high school classmate, was once the most promising actress in the school. How did she change? When was she diagnosed? It might also have been worthwhile to bring other family members into the picture beside a short conversation with a mother with the beginnings of dementia. There are very brief sudden "flashbacks" that do a quick review of the siblings through childhood and growing up; they maintain a focus that allows us to get fully into Scott and Cindy and their relationship in the present. The essence of Broken Diamonds is that it's about a life of trouble every day, of plans disrupted. It's a whirlwind that finds resolution - at least temporarily, providing a vision of life with hope under difficult circumstances.

Broken Diamonds, 90 mins., debuted at Santa Barbara (SBIFF) Apr. 1, 2021, and releases in theaters and on demand in the US Jul. 23. Critical reaction was negative: Metascore 34%.

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