While physical fatigue is yet to set in, mental fatigue is nestling into my brain. Perhaps its the viewing choices I’ve made the last couple of days, but I find myself increasingly pining for glimmers of hope in a docket full of pretty morose subjects. Maybe that’s why I’m scheduling lighter fare in the upcoming days.
But before those moments of levity, one of the highlights of the fest so far tunnels down that morose hole like no other. Jennifer Brea’s Unrest is an unflinching and harrowing first person documentary about ME-CFS (myalgic encephalopathy or chronic fatigue syndrome) and the devastating effects it wrecks on the human body. Opening with grainy camera footage as Brea pulls her limp body onto her bed, the film charts both her personal struggle with the disease and its complicated and misunderstood history.
Gradually bringing other sufferers into the film through her Errol Morris-like interview technique, Unrest becomes a medical procedural as doctors, scientists and others lobby for more research and open dialogue. One of the more shocking episodes in Brea’s work details the case of a young Danish girl named Karina who was abruptly taken away from her family and institutionalized because her physician truly believed her illness was a psychosomatic result of her home life. Another portion deals with the varying degrees of illness (85% being female) and possible genetic links between mothers who suffer and the eventual diagnosis of their children.
Never too far removed from the center, though, are Jennifer and her stoic, faithful husband Omar as they provide an emotional foundation to the film. Watching some of her more private moments, with the camera poised inches from her face, almost become too personal to bear. As Brea describes the invisibility she and so many other sufferers feel, Unrest is a first person testimonial that bravely speaks for all the invisible.
A film whose bleak, unrelenting sadness did not fully win me over was Wayne Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye. Packing the most star wattage on-screen yet (including supporting roles by Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi and Christopher Abbott), the film settles on the young, plucky but misguided Katie (Olivia Cooke). Promiscuous with any fella in the wind-swept Arizona town who gives her a ride home from her diner job, she socks away their money in hopes of getting to San Francisco one day. Then she meets new guy Bruno (Abbott) and falls head over heels in love …. although she doesn’t quite understand that her side job for money could complicate their relationship.
As Katie, Cooke (from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) owns the film. And writer-director Roberts is wise to allow the camera to hold on her magically expressive face several times throughout the film, especially during the final touching moments. She gives a magnanimous heart to a confused young girl we care about, but at times the film feels utterly misogynistic and excessive. If the point is to create a modern, desert-fried Joan of Arc in Katie, then mission accomplished. Otherwise, Katie Says Goodbye is dour to the point of abstraction.
Even more perplexing, Alejandro Molina’s Los Presentes (The Present Ones) juggles a lot of ideas, but not many of them land successfully. Essentially a psychological thriller about the bifurcated mind of an actress named Ana working through rehearsals of Hamlet and playing Ophelia, the film desperately wants to be Persona (1966) or Mulholland Drive (2001).
Even though she seems to maintain the perfect life, with an attractive, wealthy husband and precocious kid, Ana allows something into her psyche and she gradually pushes her normal life away, choosing adulterous flings instead. Portrayed by two actresses (Marianna Burelli as the initially normal Ana and Camila Selser as the intruder Ana), Los Presentes casually flips between both women to explore the dichotomy in her personality.
On top of that psychological minefield, the idea of Ana playing Ophelia in Hamlet and the centuries-old dialogue about that character’s role as a dynamic female lends a meta-text to the film. If that’s not enough, Molina interjects a fairy tale over the entire film about warriors turning into mountains and unrequited love.
Clearly influenced by masters of Spanish cinema such as Raul Ruiz in its portmanteau narrative, Los Presentes ultimately becomes too obvious in its ‘artiness’ and too earnest in its desire to achieve a ‘wow’ ending.
The Dallas International Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 9.