SXSW 2022 Review: HYPOCHONDRIAC, Past Trauma Becomes One Man's Painful, Violent Burden
A thirtysomething man’s traumatic past won’t let him move on in first time director Addison Heimann’s Hypochondriac, one of several films dealing explicitly with long-buried psychoses in this year’s SXSW Midnighters section. Heimann’s own mental and physical breakdowns inspired this story of an otherwise happy potter descending into paranoia as a result of long-term familial pressures and undiagnosed mental illness. This film feels like a personal catharsis for the director, played out by a solid cast led by a fearless Zach Villa in the semi-autobiographical role of Will.
We join Will as he is living the life. A great, creative job, a loving and supportive – if a bit stiff – boyfriend, and the kind of general upbeat disposition that makes others gravitate toward him when they feel down. However, when his estranged mother tries to get back in touch after eighteen years in and out of mental institutions for what looks like schizophrenia, Will’s happy-go-lucky façade begins to crumble in terrifying and unexpected ways.
The first pillar of his life to feel the strain is his relationship with Luke (Devon Graye), a charming, uptight guy who complements Will’s flightier instincts and keeps him grounded. As far as Luke knows, Will’s mother is dead, and to Will, that’s the emotional truth, but the actual truth is much, much darker, and those clouds descend upon both of them very quickly. Unable to deal with Will, who is still hiding what is actually bothering him, Luke distances himself. With his anchor gone
Next up is Will’s job. Already a bit wary of his super annoying boss, Will pushes himself at work in increasingly unsafe ways in order to drown out the strain of thinking about his mother – who had once tried to strangle him to death in the midst of a paranoid episode – somehow gaining entrance back into his life. This results in the first of several injuries he’ll suffer as his body seems to increasingly turn against him. Strain turns to fracture; fracture turns to burn; and whatever injuries appear on the outside are visited tenfold upon his psyche.
Through all of this torment, Will is being stalked by a specter from his past, a ghostly man in a werewolf suit – very Donnie Darko, and I mean very. Symbolizing the trauma that he suffered but never processed, this wolf creature begins to infect every aspect of Will’s life. Knowing that something is wrong, he consults numerous doctors as well as good ol’ Google to try and find a physical reason for his increasingly painful predicament; is it ALS? MS? Every doctor seems to think it’s all in his head, but that seems too simple. Anyone who’s ever dealt with clinically diagnosed mental health issues knows that the effects are far from simple. Will is losing control, can he figure it out before he falls apart completely?
Heimann’s story is compelling, and a lot of that personal history translates well in Hypochondriac, though it does suffer from occasional bouts of navel-gazing. Mental health has always been fertile ground for horror, just look at films like Psycho, The Shining, and even metaphorical treatments like The Wolf Man. It seems like modern horrors are keener to approach it head on, where the emotional toll of mental health is the villain, rather than just a symptom.
In that way Hypochondriac is very much in line with current trends, there is no outside enemy, the only way to conquer the horror of trauma is to confront it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There is definitely a low budget feel to the film, lighting is rather flat, some performances might feel more at home on the stage than on screen, but overall, it’s hard to deny the film’s power and the intensity of the performances, particular Villa and Graye, who really give their all in depicting this relationship in all its glory and pain.
Heimann is definitely a talented writer, and he certainly has a great film in him, but I’m certain that Hypochondriac is only the first step toward that goal. From its brave and painful depiction of living with internalized generational trauma, to the vision of dealing with mental illness and the toll that takes on those around you, Hypochondriac is dealing with some very big ideas. Zach Villa carries the film on the strength of a very brave performance, exposing himself physically and emotionally to an audience can’t have been easy, but he turns this role into a showpiece. Budget-borne seams notwithstanding, Hypochondriac is a fascinating vision of the many ways in which damage endured in our youth can revisit us when we least expect it, there’s enough new here to warrant a recommendation, even when all the pieces don’t quite fit.
- Addison Heimann
- Addison Heimann
- Zach Villa
- Devon Graye
- Madeline Zima