Hypochondriac, an unsettling comedy horror with Donnie Darko vibes, world premiered at SXSW 2022, going on to play major LGBTQ+ film festivals including Outfest and Frameline, where its writer-director Addison Heimann was nominated for the Jury Prize for Outstanding First Feature. As the film opens we meet Will (Ian Inigo), a sensitive Hispanic kid approaching teenagehood with a troubled home life. His mother (a terrific Marlene Forte) is in the midst of a mental health crisis and believes that her son has been drawn into a conspiracy against her. In a disturbing scene, she attempts to strangle the boy, while Will’s father (Chris Doubek) is nowhere to be seen. As Will waits with his friends to be picked up by her one afternoon after school, he receives the news that’s she has been taken into psychiatric care.
Cut to 18 years later, an adult Will (Zach Villa) is working as an artist for the gratingly upbeat and self-absorbed Blossom (Madeline Zima), making overpriced pottery for her wealthy clients, alongside fellow potter Sasha (Yumarie Morales), whom we first meet mid panic attack hiding in a closet. Used to dealing with his own such episodes, Will helps her through it by distracting her. He seems to have found some of the stability that he lacked in his childhood. As well as a steady job, he’s been dating his kindly and supportive boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye) for eight months, but is holding back from revealing too much about his past or his inner-life. He hasn’t heard from his mother in ten years, and as Mother’s Day approaches it becomes apparent that he’s told Luke that she’s dead. Out of the blue, she begins incessantly calling him, leaving voicemails, and sending him packages in the mail, with clues about the past and warning him not to trust Luke.
Suddenly experiencing a combination of concerning physical and psychological symptoms following his mother’s approaches, Will seeks medical help and is attended to by the overfamiliar and bro-ey NP Chaz (a funny, fully-committed Michael Cassidy) who reassures him that his health issues are likely down to stress. In an effort to relax and spend some intimate time with Luke, Will takes Sahsa up on an offer to stay at her grandmother’s remote cabin in the woods for the weekend. It’s there where, after taking some psychedelic mushrooms, his symptoms worsen and he’s set upon by a human in wolf’s clothing (Scott Butler) who has been creepily observing him and talking to him from afar. During the opening credits, a caption tells us that the film is based on a real breakdown. Meeting Will’s mother in the first scene we assume that this refers to her, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that Will is having a severe breakdown of his own. (Heimann’s screenplay is inspired by his own experience).
As Will searches for answers online and visits a string of medical professionals seeking a diagnosis, Heimann takes an intriguing approach to exploring Will’s increasingly debilitating mental health issues. The character’s building feelings of alarm, frustration, and isolation—having rejected help from Luke—are all palpable. There are moments of gory body horror and more visits from the wolf, with a building strand of mystery each time his mother gets in contact. Along with Will, we begin to question what’s real and what’s only in his mind.
There are plenty of good ideas here, strong acting performances, and some particularly striking, almost kaleidoscopic sequences of overlapping visuals—indicative of Will’s fractured mental state—with nice work by cinematographer Dustin Supencheck and editor Mike Hugo, that make the film look and feel distinctive, along with an unnervingly discordant score by Robert Allaire. Heimann offers us a lead character who we care about, engagingly played by Villa, particularly in the lighter more comic scenes. Somehow though, the feature isn’t as consistently gripping as it needs to be and although told from Will’s perspective, I never felt fully emotionally invested or immersed in his situation. More held at a slight distance, the way Will doesn’t let Luke get too close. Nevertheless this is definitely a worthwhile, sometimes challenging watch and a promising feature debut. Heimann deserves credit for filtering such a traumatic personal experience into a creative work that lingers in the mind.
By James Kleinmann
Hypochondriac opens in US theaters on Friday, July 29th and is released on demand and digital on Thursday, August 4th 2022.