I caught Hypochondriac first at SXSW and immediately fell head over heels for it. Addison Heimann’s fictionalised telling of his own mental breakdown is a powerful film that sits perfectly aside both Donnie Darko and Daniel Isn’t Real. It’s so much more than just that though as Heimann provides a vital conversation around the stigmas of mental health. Here’s my review from THN’s SXSW coverage.
Written and directed by Addison Heimann (the writer and star of brilliant short Jeff Drives You), Hypochondriac screened as part of the SXSW Midnight programming, but has plenty more to it than cheap scares. Based on the real life breakdown of Heimann, Hypochondriac follows Will (Zach Villa), a potter, as his life devolves into chaos after he loses full function of his body whilst being haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.
The horror genre and the exploration of mental illness have been bedfellows for generations, but Hypochondriac is an example of how to combine them well. One reason for the ease in which they gel so effectively here is the real scenario that forms the source of the story. Although several elements have been embellished or finessed to craft a more compelling work of fiction, the factual aspects enrich the piece, lying just under the surface, helping to keep everything grounded. Hypochondriac also doesn’t lean too heavily into the horror aspects, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Daniel Isn’t Real and Donnie Darko, and cherry-picking a handful of components to keep the viewer on edge.
One such horror element is Will’s manifestation of his childhood trauma. It comes in the guise of a human sized wolf (played by Scott Butler), though this wolf has more of a demonic face than a furry snout. It’s a striking image, one that is very reminiscent of Darko’s friend Frank, but the similarities work in Hypochondriac’s favour, making it easy for the audience to understand the creature and what its role is. This is a potential figment of Will’s imagination, a clear symptom of his mind fracturing and one whose presence never fails to unsettle. The wolf lurks around Will constantly and never knowing exactly when it will pop up again is a great source of tension. It’s an accurate portrayal of how those living with trauma and grief survive day-to-day, never knowing if, or when, it might flare up again.
Will being an on-screen translation of Addison’s experience weighs the role with a lot of pressure to get the part right. Zach Villa has approached the role with the right amount of tenderness and tenacity. In order to do the part justice it’s important to see changes in Will; the Will introduced at the beginning must be vastly different to the one that he becomes or else the impact of the mental crisis will not work. Villa is quick to introduce Will as a playful, caring, and artistic soul, bopping around his place of employment to Jessie J’s Domino. The inclusion of the song, or its title at least, is a little nod to how fragile Will’s psyche is; one little nudge and the whole thing will topple domino style. Changes in Will creep in slowly and steadily, and even at his baseline introduction, there are clear scars of his brutal history with his mother. Villa communicates all of the intricacies of Will’s transition, the light and dark of the character, to achieve some devastating moments.
Hypochondriac is told firmly from Will’s perspective, the audience fully going down the rabbit-hole with him as his mind begins to come unstuck. Spending time inside a mind that is unstable and with a protagonist who themselves can’t quite decipher what is real, and what isn’t, means that the viewer also has to question the validity of the reality constructed around them. The unease generated by the unknowing, places the audiences into the same headspace as Will, guiding them through their own breakdown.
Alongside Will and his demons, Hypochondriac is telling a love story, that of Will and boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye). The pair have electric chemistry on-screen and right from a cheeky exchange of texts, the couple is one that the audience fall head over heels for. Already invested before even seeing the two share screen time, once we do see Will and Luke together it’s plain to see why they’re together as they compliment each other perfectly. Luke appears to be the more introverted and shy, whereas Will is dramatic and fun. As the story progresses, these contrasting approaches to life compound, Luke tiring of Will’s inability to take anything seriously, and by the time Will becomes really unstuck, the two are in a very different place to the beginning. Watching this perfectly matched couple be torn apart offers a stark reminder that it’s not just the person whose mental health is under strain that the illness has an effect on.
Interestingly, during the time of Addison’s own breakdown, he was single. Whereas most of the other characters are taken in part for specific people, the part of Luke operates differently. With no exact real world counterpart to draw from, Heimann instead created Luke from a collection of friends and family members. With no strong sense of who exactly the character was, Heimann then let Graye have a great amount of input into the character and the results are well worth the hard work. Graye’s commitment to Luke mirrors that of Zach with Will and the two having crafted such a beautiful pair of characters. The pair have to get extremely vulnerable with one another and there’s a great moment of intimate tenderness that shines bright on several levels, with just one being a push forward for the LGBTQ+ community. Another aspect of the character of Luke being untethered from a point of reality is that he is therefore an unknown factor, even to the director himself. There’s an inability to fully pin down Luke and his intentions and that paranoia builds into Will’s own, further reinforcing the sense of being in the mind of someone in trouble.
Although dealing with some tough topics and delving into some very dark territory, Hypochondriac isn’t purely doom and gloom. In a statement about the film, Heimann encourages the viewer to have some fun with his work, remarking that comedy is tragedy plus time and now out of the breakdown that inspired the piece he can look back and see the lighter side of some moments. He weaves these instances beautifully, never going too silly, but keeping it light enough to generate some chuckles. There are a lot of laughs within Will’s work environment; his boss, Blossom (Madeline Zima), is the ultimate self-centred girl-boss / influencer wannabe. Her character is flippant and uncaring, says a lot of things that she shouldn’t, and in doing so makes her someone the audience can laugh at whilst also aligning themselves with Will against her. Another example of humour comes from Heimann’s inclusion of a Ghost homage. The fact that Will is a potter by trade means that of course we have to get that nod, and when it comes, it’s weird, wacky, and everything you could want.
With a title like Hypochondriac, the film has to feature members of the medical profession. In a bid to find out what’s wrong with him, Will meets with a series of doctors in the hope that someone can diagnose his condition. What he encounters are a slew of medical people of varying levels of professionalism and bedside manners, though all of them spout the same mantras. Each has the same ‘be bright like glitter and bubbly like champagne’ motivational poster on the walls, an image that will later haunt Will, and all explain to Will the power that the mind can have over the body. They all happily reprimand him for Googling his symptoms, seemingly brushing him off as being silly and a waste of their time. Their echoing of the same empty mantras and apparent inability to listen to their patient will be a familiar scenario to many that have tried and failed to seek help. It’s only when Will reaches the point of no return that his condition is treated with the gravity that it should, and is once again a sadly accurate analysis of the medical institution and the stigmas of mental health.
On a technical level, Hypochondriac continues to hit it out of the park. The look of the film taps into the work of Adam Egypt Mortimer and Richard Kelly’s famous texts, but not in the sense of trying to replicate either. It’s more as though there is an unconscious thread that connects these three films following a lead character in crisis that encourages them to be filmed in similar ways. In Hypochondriac the colours are a mixture of grey and teals, Dustin Supencheck’s cinematography is edged with shadows as Will’s past trauma starts to take hold of him. The only place not presented in this way is Will’s place of work. Although somewhere that Will frequents, it is not his space and so reflects the inner mind of Blossom more than he. There are so many gorgeous shots to be found amongst the darkness, but it’s a misty mountain top closing shot that really sings. The score of Robert Allaire (who incidentally composed Egypt Mortimer’s debut Some Kind of Hate) is affecting and haunting, slowly creeping in, building in intensity as Will’s breakdown intensifies. Allaire’s score becomes an aural indicator to Will’s mental stability, and is one that is needed for home consumption as soon as possible.
Nothing has been overlooked in the construction of Hypochondriac, everyone putting as much care and attention as they can into the piece to do Heimann’s own experience justice. The respect helps sell the stranger elements and the result is a modern marvel that looks set to take the genre world by storm. A stunningly honest and frightening journey through the darker aspects of the human psyche, Hypochondriac should be immediately added to the top of your watch-list.
Hypochondriac is currently awaiting UK distribution.