As someone who’s struggled with and been institutionalized for mental illness, I can say with some authority that the most infuriating part Vincent Sabella’s Elizabeth Blue is how much it gets right. When the film opens, we see Elizabeth (Anna Schafer) getting released from a psychiatric hospital where she’d received treatment for a rare and peculiarly aggressive form of schizophrenia. She goes home, steps into the shower, and just stands there under the water, fidgeting with the taps, turning them on and off, on and off. After living in a facility presumably with rationed shower time, getting to decide the length of one’s soak is such a bizarre luxury it seems positively alien. When she steps out of the shower again and stares at herself in the mirror, we see a human being rediscovering themselves: Elizabeth is a Person again, not a Patient. Later we see her attend a meeting with her new psychiatrist Dr. Bowman (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once again, the film nails little details foreign to audiences outside of the know: the strained silences, the instinctual mistrust towards even well-intentioned inquiries, the timid fear that maybe, just maybe, you’ve finally found somebody who actually understands you and wants to help you get well, not just pawn off the latest round of designer medications. And finally, there’s the strained relationship with her fiancé Grant (Ryan Vincent)—he wants to love and support her, but he seems incapable of understanding just what she’s going through. And isn’t that the crux of mental illness? The impossibility of explaining to loved ones what’s happening to you? That your pain is real? That you want to be well so badly you’d give anything to wish it away but can’t? Sabella understands all these things intuitively, in large part because he too has struggled with schizophrenia. And all these emotions, all these insights, all these little glimpses of truth are done subtle, understated visual language and tightly controlled performances. It occasionally reminds one of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1993), still the gold standard for films about schizophrenia.
And yet Elizabeth Blue routinely disappoints as it surrenders to the very worst of mental illness grandstanding. The film tentatively follows Elizabeth as she battles her schizophrenia in preparation for her wedding. Along the way there are fights, blow-ups, and reconciliations with Grant as well as several devastating flare-ups of her condition, the worst being a vicious British man who tries to bully her into suicide. (I feel compelled to add that the vast majority of schizophrenics only have auditory hallucinations, not visual ones. But seeing as how the film makes a point of specifying Elizabeth’s condition as unique and that Sabella has first-hand experience with the disorder, I’ll defer to his expertise and let it go.) But many of these hallucinations are either poorly executed—one sequence where she’s woken up at night by the sound of a train feels like an on-set rehearsal—or downright silly. There’s one scene where Elizabeth is in a bathroom when all of a sudden a raccoon appears on the toilet seat. A real raccoon. And Elizabeth bends over and tells it that she’s taking new medication and is sorry that she’ll never get to see them again. The film then cuts to shot of Elizabeth petting the thin air above the toilet. I had to stop myself from chortling.
Certain sequences feel unnecessarily rushed, particularly a sequence where Elizabeth’s overbearing mother Carol (Kathleen Quinlan) drops by. And when I say she drops by, I mean it: she just pops over out of the blue seemingly just to have an argument about Elizabeth’s mental illness because she felt like it. The two actresses give it their all, but the material is so forced and overly dramatic it feels more like a recap montage from the opening of a soap opera than an episode in a serious film drama.
But all this pales in comparison to the film’s unexpectedly tragic twist ending, an ending totally at odds with the rest of the film’s well-intentioned if flawed mission of depicting the struggles of the mentally ill to readapt to life. It’s weepy nonsense that plays up the film’s worst melodramatic tendencies. It’s so jarring and unfair it squashed my reserves of goodwill for the film. Elizabeth Blue is infuriating, not because it fails but because it doesn’t fail completely. There’s a good movie buried somewhere inside it. But some considerable digging is required.