As with most my reviews, you should know that they come from an extremely personal place. Just go back and find my take on TAKE THIS WALTZ, which even I can admit is flawed, but I don’t care. An emotional reaction is what bumps up my ratings most of the time, to where I actively decide to overlook flaws of a filmmaker’s choices simply because they were able to affect me in a meaningful way that stays with me for the long haul. This is not the best approach towards criticism, I realize, especially since all facets of the storytelling and filmmaking process should be taken into account. I should be able to point out what may be “wrong,” but I never intend on being overtly critical unless I truly feel it is necessary. I also don’t actively pursue writing in the same way that I do with movie-watching or more recently, with podcasting. The latter are almost necessary for me, whereas the review-writing is often left on the back-burner. When a film like IN SO MANY WORDS comes into my life, it is imperative that I put my thoughts into words and share the experience with you. Maybe this will read like hype, but I assure that my words come from a sincere place. So with all that in mind, this will probably read more like a personal essay rather than a traditional movie review.
Let me start with the film itself before getting into the emotional reaction that accompanied the viewing experience. IN SO MANY WORDS is a documentary about resilience and a woman named Lucy Daniels. Resilience is one word that kept swimming through my mind as I was watching it. Rarely did I feel like I was experiencing a conventional documentary where it simply is just a bunch of talking heads relaying stories. Sure, there is a focus on the survival tale of one Dr. Lucy Walker. And yes, there are lots of archival photographs to highlight certain moments. Like in most films of this nature, we do get a camera mounted on a tripod that is placed in front of her as she looks out, examining her life and providing details of her traumatic past. But this is interspersed with something incredibly cinematic that you would find in more of a fictional narrative sense. In her feature directing debut, Elisabeth Haviland James made some truly audacious choices that paid off and play to the film’s strengths. To be completely honest, when I viewed the trailer, I was concerned that maybe the filmed images would play more like “art” that would mask the themes or overwhelm the central story. (If I’m not mistaken, Lucy Daniels had that fear at first too). My unfounded first reaction was, “Yeesh, I hope the film doesn’t play like a series of antidepressant ads with sad kids looking at the camera.” The online trailer that I saw does not due the film justice, though it probably is more of a teaser than anything. In fact, my response within the context of the actual film was that the images were absolutely gorgeous and attuned to the nature of Lucy’s story without ever being too on-the-nose. They were haunting, beautifully shot and dreamlike. I was reminded of North Carolina native David Gordon Green’s fixation on nature and forestry to set a mood that complements its chosen environment. IN SO MANY WORDS is not only a story of incredible power and resilience, but is also an astonishing mood piece that gets inside your skin and lives inside while you’re watching it. Hopefully it stays with you the way it did for me, but reasons why will be uncovered later on. To be completely objective, my only criticism is that some shots rely far too heavily on “foggy cam,” which cloud up corners of the frame to make it look smoky and mysterious. I became hyper-aware of the effect, despite still admiring the image in the forefront. Instead of opting for reenactments, James decided to construct imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in something like THE TREE OF LIFE, which play like recollections of the past both surreal and real.
It helps that the subject of the story, Dr. Lucy Daniels, is a compelling, charming women with a whopper of a story to share. She went through a difficult childhood with emotionally abusive parents, that eventually lead to an eating disorder. Back then, there was very little awareness and treatment for most mental illnesses as we all know. At one point, Lucy reveals that she was placed in an institution for anorexia by her parents (for four years no less), and would regularly run into unmedicated schizophrenic patients. There are sections in this film, partially due to an incredibly haunting score by composer Nathan Halpern, that play like a psychological horror film. These cutaways aren’t reenactments, but imaginative immersions into what it must have “felt like” rather than being factual reveals or uncovered footage shot on home video. Often dreams transform into nightmares, then back into memories of what Lucy endured both at home and during treatment. Lucy is a strong proponent of dream analysis, so it seems fitting that the director adopted that concept visually. Later in life, Lucy also discovered psychoanalysis and had a long-term relationship with a therapist, which allowed her to manage her thoughts and symptoms. What she has gone on to do after becoming a mother and an activist and a recovering anorexic, is beyond special and inspirational. For a future therapist like myself, it was a transcendent experience knowing how strong a person can be to overcome so many traumas and difficulties. Yes of course, this story was totally up my alley, but the film itself is subtle in its brilliance. It doesn’t hit you over the head with what it’s trying to convey, and that is a huge reason why it resonated with me as well. The tone that Elisabeth Haviland James chose was part-dream, part-autobiographical retelling. She flawlessly found a balance between the two - recalling the works of Errol Morris and most recently, Sarah Polley’s incredible STORIES WE TELL.
Through the years, documentaries have been playing with our expectations as a viewer, whether it’s something like THE IMPOSTER, and then culminating in last year’s mind-blowing THE ACT OF KILLING. Reading the synopsis of IN SO MANY WORDS, I had feared I could be walking into a Frontline special or something sub-par that I might’ve seen in some psychology courses that a professor thought would pertain to the course material. Little did I know that I was about to experience something profound and enlightening on a lot of levels. First of all, I went through similar issues as Lucy did only mine manifested differently. Instead of not eating, I chose to overeat to the point of binging. I vividly remember being excited to take my friends out for a fast food breakfast, and then after school, going back to that same fast food restaurant for lunch. There was such a void inside, that only fast food and junk food could alleviate my anxiety and depression. I thought it was working, despite the weight gain. To this day, I fear opening up a bag of chips will lead to the entire bag being gone in one sitting. Thankfully that is now a rarity, and I live with someone who comments and monitors my eating habits in a supportive and educational way. But seeing IN SO MANY WORDS brought up a lot of pain that I was not prepared for. Clearly, when you watch a movie with oodles of empathy to spare, there is bound to be moments where you respond to what a character has gone through. But if I had watched this alone in my room, I am certain that I wouldn’t have held back tears the way I did in a crowded theater. Mostly I was just in shock by two feelings - one, this was not a conventional documentary told lazily, and two, it was like looking up at my life at times especially once she revealed that she wanted to help others cope by going on to become a therapist. Certain lines that Lucy spoke were direct reflections of my own words, paraphrased of course. So the reason why I’m including this in my review is because, my reaction is intensely personal. In fact, and I hope this doesn’t upset the director too much, but the person sitting next to me in the theater began to quietly snore at the same time I was completely engrossed and moved by what I was watching. This may not be a film that everyone finds to be enlightening as I did. Certainly, there are many stories about resilience and overcoming mental health struggles in documentary form. I feel that my feelings were just powerful to shake, in the best way possible. Sure, I actually began trembling a bit while also nodding in recognition to what kind of childhood Lucy experienced and how she coped with the negative thoughts inside of her as a result. But it lead to catharsis of the highest caliber. I immediately sought out a couple of film critic colleagues in hopes of getting this film shown at their festival next year, and added it to the database at Letterboxd. Sure, neither of these actions are anything to write home about, but that’s when I knew the film mattered so much to me and all others be damned.
I imagine other critics might not find IN SO MANY WORDS as powerful or original, but I can’t think of another movie this year that I had a more emotionally satisfying experience with. Unfortunately, distribution seems non-existent at the moment so all we can hope for is a strong DVD campaign that you know I will be more than happy to get behind with full support. Documentaries keep getting better and better as time goes along, and although this is not a revelation about mankind on a macro level, for me, it is a triumphant portrayal of self-actualization and strength told confidently by a filmmaker who decided not to play it safe. It is infused with imagery that I will never forget, and obviously, I cannot wait to read Lucy’s memoir to experience the kind of feelings I did for 75 minutes. This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in quite awhile about how a person learns to love themselves, despite the negative reinforcement that came early-on. Hopefully you will all get to experience Lucy’s story to potentially feel even just a fraction of what I felt. That, in so many words, is me giving this film an extremely high recommendation whether my reaction is shaded by my interests and experience. A-