US (DWF review)

us - 1
US (DWF review)

Director Sam Hancock is crazy if he thinks anyone will believe that US is his first feature. Compelling, thoughtful, poignant, touchingly heartfelt and empowering, and FINALLY, a film that showcases the uber-talented Alanna Ubach, US is everything a drama should be, everything a story should be. Nothing gratuitous. Everything means something.

Margaret is a struggling artist; struggling human being. Dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), she fights to live a normal life while living with her “abnormalcy”. Proud that she has been able to survive and thrive on her own, the personalities inside are now struggling for their own control, pushing Margaret towards a resolution to stop the conflict, stop the pain. But Margaret isn’t alone. A quiet young man, Jeff, watches her from afar. A guardian angel perhaps? Or a stalker? And then there’s Walker. He sees her pain and wants to help. He also wants a romantic relationship with her. But is she capable of one? And what happens when the world – and her personalities – start pushing back?

Written by Sam Hancock, Dan Mayer and Dr. Matthew McKay, an emotionally complex story, key to US are the performances and the pacing. They go hand in hand not only with the development of each of the three main individual characters – Margaret, Walker and Jeff – but in the dynamic of the story and the thoughtful and respectful discussion of DID. Never hurried, but always methodical and casually paced, we are immersed in Margaret’s world and the “normality” of it so that when one of her DID personalities steps in, while shocking and frightening, it feels “at home”. It’s this “normalcy of abnormal” that lets Margaret resonate and connect with the audience. We feel her pain, her frustration, her sorrow. But we also empathize with her need to “hang on” to these inner friends. It’s because of the “normalcy of abnormal” that the story structure of Margaret with Walker and Margaret with Jeff works. Jeff understands “normalcy of abnormal” and Walker doesn’t, setting the stage for the friction and distancing with Walker and the connection Margaret and the audience feel with Jeff. It is impossible to ever dismiss or disregard Jeff. We understand Margaret’s world because of Jeff. We see her world through his eyes. We feel her pain because of Walker’s demands for “normal” as he believes the world perception of normal to be.

As riveting as Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve or Sally Field in Sybil, so is Alanna Ubach. The psychiatric session with Dr. Madrone is spellbinding as Ubach moves from one identity into the other. The traumatic incidents and personalities that emerge when Margaret is being slutty or petrified and defiant in the bathtub or hurt and alone as Millie are mesmerizing. She turns on a dime with her voice, facial expressions and physical nuance. Ubach captivates with authenticity and honesty, never going to extremes (as Sally Field did with some of her performance). We took note of Ubach in Sister Act 2. We laughed with her as cheerleader Serena in Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2. We embraced her on Hung and laughed some more with her in Men of a Certain Age and we have adored her voices in animated cartoons for the past 20 years. Now, she more than proves her mettle with the taut complexity and emotional nuance of Margaret. This is the stuff of which award winners are made.

As Jeff, Patrick Russell steals the heart. Quiet, observant and slightly “off” or a bit “slow”, he makes Jeff our eyes and ears and Margaret’s safety net. Russell makes us care because Jeff cares. Editing and story construct come into play with the relationship between Margaret and Jeff as we get to watch their “friendship” bloom and grow like a little plant bud.

Similarly, Michael Navarra brings some qualities to Walker that one must question. Walker doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, who Margaret is and believes in fixing things to the way he thinks they should be rather than let them be. He pressures her and Navarra has just enough of a whine in his voice to effortlessly ratchet up the pressure He grates on you, he even annoys. It’s Jeff who ultimately makes Walker salvageable and Jeff who makes Walker connect with the audience. Jeff is the lynchpin that spoon feeds Walker and summons him to help when Margaret needs help. Quite frankly, the real knight in shining armor in US is Jeff. A wounded bird knows another wounded bird.

Co-written by Hancock, Dan Mayer and noted psychologist and author Dr. Matthew McKay, this is no flippant drama. The story is rooted in truth and medical science. DID has become so much a part of the media lately. Characters and storylines involving DID have been at the forefront on shows like General Hospital for over a year now and have painted new portraits of mental illness and the “normalcy of abnormal.” Like GH, US is grounded in the science but creates relatable likeable characters who embody the illness and show the triumph of the human spirit and the drive and need to function and be a part of society no matter what the condition. I can’t applaud the filmmakers enough for making DID the basis of Margaret.

Interesting is Paul Nordin’s cinematography. On the one hand, dark and gritty but with a digital polish and crisp sharpness. The dichotomy between the clean visual texture and the subject matter creates a palpable uncomfortableness that allows for the emotional tapestry to come to the forefront. Similarly, the contrast in lighting after Margaret has had a particularly dark episode to then come out into the world the next day to harsh, overlit brightness, shocks the senses, making US a full sensory experience.

Production design is impeccable, particularly with Margaret’s apartment. Spacious, well lighted, green plants. Oxygen, growth, freedom, light – all except in her art studio which is notoriously dark.

While the score as a whole isn’t anything extraordinary, notable is the striking single note piano keys in Margaret’s darker moments, creating an ominous and foreboding tone.

US – emotionally complex, disturbing, compelling, riveting.

Directed by Sam Hancock
Written by Sam Hancock, Dan Mayer and Dr. Matthew McKay
Cast: Alanna Ubach, Michael Navarra, Patrick Russell