While many documentaries about issues as sensitive as mental illness can be clouded in excessive fact-listing or sentimentality, Douglas Blush and Lisa Klein’s examination of bipolar disorder Of Two Minds deftly avoids the obvious traps. The filmmakers make no attempt to rally or manipulate their audience, nor do they pretend something so complicated could be adequately summed up in a 90-minute documentary.
Instead, they point their cameras at a few fascinating people who suffer from the disorder and allow their stories and personalities speak for themselves. The motive is drawn from something rather simple: Klein’s own sister was bipolar and eventually the black cloud of the dark half of the disorder took her life. That means the director is too close to the subject matter to ever pretend it can be broken down or completely understood, but ensures she’s just sensitive and understanding enough to know how to portray her subjects with moving honesty. It’s not an easy movie to watch at times, nor should it be. However, Of Two Minds never ceases to be heartfelt and moving.
For those unfamiliar with the term bipolar or who didn’t quite get the gist of how it works in Silver Linings Playbook (understandably so), it’s a mental condition defined by extreme shifts in mood from irrationally heightened manic episodes to brutally dark bouts of severe depression. It’s a seemingly unpredictable life of mood shifts that can be incredibly difficult to deal with. Over 5 million people suffer from it in the US alone and those are just the diagnosed cases. Yet, it’s also a disorder few understand even though they’ve probably shared a relationship with someone who has it firsthand and Blush/Klein do a wonderful job of expressing the experience through a series of sensitive interviews.
There are three major subjects in the film, each deeply fascinating in their own way. First there’s Liz Spikol who quietly suffered from the condition for years before finding an outlet as a writer for Philadelphia Weekly. She had a column outlining her struggles and experiences that soon became a YouTube vlog series and earned her international attention. Next up is Carlton Davis a Pasadena artist and architect who has finally found a way to live with bipolar disorder through medication, but shares haunting memories of the most uncontrollable times in his life when the severe depression lead to a crack addiction, a second secret personality as a cross dresser, and a dark sexual odyssey through the 80s during which Davis claims he was seeking AIDS. Finally there’s Cheri Keating, who is introduced first and used as a center for the film. She’s an LA based make-up artist/stylist whose erratic lifestyle has led to 37 homes in as many years in her life. She vividly expresses and films her most manic highs and depressing lows with refreshing honesty. Most intriguingly, she finds a new boyfriend who over the course of the documentary is diagnosed with bipolar himself, leading to a heartbreaking relationship that slips in and out of the film from start to finish.
Each of these subjects provides their own fascinating accounts and insights to the bipolar experience. Blush and Klein wisely stand back as filmmakers, avoiding any distracting or flashy filmmaking techniques to simply allow their subjects speak for themselves. Occasionally they’ll get lost in tangents like a bizarre segment on a donut shot forced to stop selling a donut called The Bipolar (because it’s got peanuts on one side a icing on the other, silly!), much to the chagrin of many bipolar clients. Thankfully there aren’t many of these loose threads and the three protagonists carry they weight of the film. Davis’ stories display the most unsettlingly lows possible, Spikol provides an inspiring story of a condition turned into a career, and the long, open access that Keating granted the filmmakers provides an appropriately split joyful/heartbreaking snapshot of a bipolar life in motion. When the credits roll you might not fully understand how the condition functions or why it exists, but then few if any people truly do. Instead, the audience is granted a glimpse into the daily and lifelong struggles of bipolar people, providing a set of very warm and human faces to a mental health buzzword. Some may be put off by the uncomfortable honesty and warmly humanistic sentiments that the filmmakers put forward, but as one of the few major films ever made about the subject these qualities are entirely appropriate. What a wonderfully touching and intriguing little documentary.
Dork Shelf Film and Performing Arts Editor Andrew Parker (who is bipolar himself) will be conducting Q&As with co-director Doug Blush at the 9:10pm screenings of Of Two Minds at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema on Friday, March 1st and Saturday, March 2nd.