From the Boston Underground Film Festival: ‘Hypochondriac’ Is a Nuanced, Beautiful Horror Thriller | Arts

In the realm of contemporary horror movies and psychological horror thrillers, few topics are as dramatized (and exploited) as mental health crises. Countless popular films from “Black Swan” to “Hereditary” to “Shutter Island” have depicted psychological breakdowns in hallucinatory detail, often mining the surreal realities of certain conditions for jump scares and reinforcing stigmas and misconceptions around mental illness in the process. These films generally end on a bleak note, making a grim conclusion essentially a hallmark of the genre; their protagonists are left in the grips of their illness, and treatment is posed as a futile fantasy better suited for a different type of movie. Addison Heiman’s debut feature “Hypochondriac” flips this script, presenting a nuanced, engrossing story that is a welcome departure from the troubling tropes that have defined psychological thrillers until now. Skillfully directed, “Hypochondriac” is a knockout of an independent film that transcends its contained scope, delivering a beautiful queer love story and a moving family trauma within its comedy-horror-thriller portray format.

Zach Villa is charismatic and heartbreaking as Will, a talented ceramicist in Los Angeles whose life is disrupted by the reappearance of his schizophrenic mother (Marlena Forte), who was institutionalized after she tried to kill him when he was 12. Heimann illustrates this experience and its immortalization in Will’s memory in the opening scenes, which depict the violent moment in symmetrical shots saturated with color; as the camera pulls away from the scene and the shot shrinks in the frame, dissolving into a backdrop of black, Heimann seems to bring the viewer into a diorama of Will’s past from him.

When we meet him again, 20 years later, the film has a dramatically different tone: Will dances around a pottery studio to the exalting notes of Jessie J’s “Domino,” radiating warmth and energy, and then pauses to coach his coworker Sasha (Yumarie Morales) through a panic attack by convincing her to freestyle rap in an endearing moment of camaraderie and kindness. In these moments, as in the rest of the film, Will comes across as a complex and naturalistic character, with a vivacious presence and empathetic instincts that make him easy to root for. He’s brilliantly drawn and acted, and he immediately appears like a familiar friend onscreen.

As the film progresses, Heimann masterfully depicts Will’s growing panic as he experiences a variety of disorienting physical and psychological symptoms, beginning with tension and pain in his hands that disrupt his pottery practice. Tense, kinetic shots of him kneading clay and forming pots on the wheel illustrate the disrupted meditative physicality of his art by him, drawing audiences into his fixation by him with diagnosing and addressing the problem. As Will struggles to find doctors who will take his concerns about him seriously, Heimann hilariously and poignantly criticizes the one-size-fits-all platitudes that medical practitioners are all too ready to offer patients with unclear conditions, as multiple people diagnose him with “ stress.” His frustrating conversations with the jarringly upbeat, bro-ey “NP Chaz” (Michael Cassidy) and perfunctory Dr. Rosenstein (Adam Busch) embody the kind of hilarious, targeted poignancy and creative body horror themes that characterize the film, making it at once entertainment and salient.

As Will’s physical and mental health deteriorates and he becomes more and more concerned that he’s experiencing a schizophrenic episode, the movie morphs into a horror film that effectively brings audiences into his mental state. He starts seeing a figure in a wolf suit (reminiscent of “Donnie Darko”’s Frank, which Heimann says he was paying homage to) beckoning to him, following his movements of him, and urging him to do increasingly terrifying things. While Heimann harnesses the tension and momentum of a psychological thriller to construct a viscerally affecting portrait of a breakdown, he resists the reading otherization and hysteria that often characterize film portrayals of mental illness. Even his portrayal of the wolf moves beyond showing him as an adversarial supernatural force; Will realizes that he must find a way to coexist with the wolf, like his mental illness itself. In one affecting scene, he sits beside the wolf and they watch him’s home videos from his childhood, in which he dressed up in the same wolf costume.

As Heimann told film blog Rue Morgue, he wrote the film based on his own mental health struggles during the pandemic and his experiences with his mother, who has bipolar disorder. The script, distinguished by three-dimensional characters and realistic, sharp dialogue, combines the touching naturalism of a biographical film with the heightened atmosphere and threat of a horror film to captivating effect, speaking to Heimann’s skills from him as a talented filmmaker worth following in coming years.

It also delivers a moving and beautiful love story through its portrayal of Will’s relationship with his boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye), who struggles to understand Will’s growing concerns about his health and to support him when he realizes he may have schizophrenia. Graye gives an exemplary, emotive performance, and the authenticity of their on screen connection emerges in well-written moments of joy and discord, from the sweet moment when Will drags Luke up to dance with him in their vacation cabin to a fraught argument they have. in Luke’s kitchen. Heimann cuts away from the latter scene quickly, midway through their confrontation. It’s one of many tactful editing choices that keep the movie sharp and mesmerizing, illustrating Will’s struggles without exploiting them for melodrama.

Though the film slows down a bit in the second act and sometimes feels slightly too long, its conclusion is well worth waiting for. The film follows Will past the height of his breakdown and hospitalization, a point at which many horror movies with similar subjects would have ended. He is shown meeting a sympathetic therapist at a hospital who coaches him on the ways he can get help and move forward in his life from him. In the film’s final moments, viewers glimpse early moments of his recovery, and the film is suffused with hope for the future ahead of him (and Luke.) It’s a refreshingly uplifting and open-ended finale, acknowledging what so many horror films refuse to — that its protagonist can lead a happy and fulfilling life, and has not lost his capacity to love or be loved. “Hypochondriac” is an important film for the horror genre, implicitly questioning how it treats mental illness and discards characters facing serious conditions. It’s also, however, an important film for the current moment, offering a gorgeously complex narrative of queer love and self-realization that transcends genre or audience.

—Staff writer Harper R. Oreck can be reached at harper.oreck@thecrimson.com.

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