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SXSW Review Hypochondriac- A Bold And Unapologetic Look At Mental Illness

Addison Heimann’s Hypochondriac is a fierce examination of childhood scars and their lasting effects. Bold, relatable, and unapologetic, it is a brave triumph for the first-time filmmaker.

Families are messy. Even the best ones have days they aren’t proud of. When mental illness, negligent abuse, and malignant indifference collide, they can be ruinous to everyone involved. Heimann’s Hypochondriac, which premiered at SXSW, explores those blurry lines between past trauma, depression, and demons, whether they be of the inner variety or from Hell itself.

Will, an instantly likable Zach Villa(AHS Double Feature), is an endearingly happy guy. He likes his job as a potter working for an obnoxious influencer named impossibly Blossom(Madeline Zima) and has a devoted boyfriend, Luke(Devon Graye). Sasha(Yumarie Morales), his coworker, is supportive and funny. He seemingly has it all until he gets a phone call from his estranged mom. That one simple call sends his whole life spiraling out of control. He begins to see a man in a wolf costume everywhere. His distraction causes him to have an accident injuring his hands and arms. What should have been a superficial injury turns into a debilitating wound.

The film opens with a glimpse inside a toxic family relationship. Snapshots of a family in crisis are interlaced with wholesome beats of happiness. Pictures of happy costumed hours sit alongside a harrowing chase through the night, culminating in a near-deadly attack. Will’s mother(Marlene Forte) struggled with mental illness for years until one night; she became convinced someone was out to get her. After grabbing Will and running away to a hotel, she began seeing Will as a threat. To his horror and confusion, she tried to strangle him. She stopped herself in time, but the damage was done, and she was sent to an institution for everyone’s safety.

Will grew up with the specter of his mother’s attack hanging over his head but has managed to avoid falling into the same patterns. Until she blows back into his life, bringing chaos and forcing him to confront what he has been running from. Some pain can’t be forgotten, and scars are forever. Fearing he is doomed to follow in his mother’s footsteps, he cuts ties with everyone to protect those he cares about.

Villa is a standout. The entirety of Hypochondriac rests on his narrow shoulders. He is a revelation of raw nerves and emotion. Fragile and heartbreaking, he carries the weight of the world in every step. Villa subtly shows the internal struggle of wanting to be who you think you are versus who you have always been. He thinks he has outrun his family trauma. The more his mother invades his life in increasingly upsetting phone calls, the worse he unravels, though. The flair of a nostril is enough to show his panic, and a furrowed brow shows his frustration with dismissive doctors.

A parade of condescending physicians and, even more troubling, an alarmingly indifferent father who proves to be a damaging contributor to the family drama that unfolded all those years ago offers no help to Will. They promise support but deliver only platitudes. The flawed medical establishment in all its frustrating and often ineffective glory is highlighted. Will needs help, not advice like don’t Google things.

Will’s father is also not helpful, choosing to use tough love and stoic denial instead. Neither Will’s mother or father were equipped to provide the kind of home a child deserves. His father shields himself with surveillance and manipulation as Will’s mother descends into often violent madness. It’s not entirely clear whether he was building a case to save what remains of his family or if he was narcissistically focused on getting rid of an annoyance by gaslighting her into insanity. In the final act, revelations reveal that both parents had a role in Will’s lasting pain. Neither is innocent.

This intense film will definitely trigger those bothered by suicidal imagery and themes. Between the disturbing imagery and red-washed moodiness of Will’s hallucination sequences, you feel as sick as he does. The resolution could be considered heavy-handed, but this is a very personal story for Heimann, and viewed in this light, there is nothing but truth here.

Hypochondriac is a queer horror film about mental illness that isn’t exploitive. Queer films are woefully underrepresented, and the honest portrayal of a human in crisis and the loved ones who are left to pick up the pieces is as beautiful as it is haunting. There is never any doubt that Will is ill. There are no questions of ghosts or demons out to get him. He is his own worst enemy. The ever-present wolf monster is the shadow of illness he thought he had avoided until now. It is successful as a visual representation of what it looks like to have a mental break.

Grief and illness have become very now, particularly with horror, where it dovetails nicely with violence and existential dread. Heimann’s willingness to put his personal struggle with mental illness out for public consumption is brave. His film doesn’t just show you what Will is going through; he makes you feel it. As a horror film, Hypochondriac may not be as successful as a drama, but it is impactful, and Heimann’s honest portrayal is beyond reproach. XYZ Films just bought the distribution rights, so everyone should get a chance to see this film soon. Find all our SXSW coverage here.