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Mike’s Review: Hypochondriac (SXSW 2022)


★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Addison Heimann

Hypochondriac is really a film that hits the right place and the right time. Mental health, familial relationships, concern about physical health and well-being, and our collective sense that we just might be lost in the universe. Hypochondriac delivers on all these fronts and manages to sneak in a couple of legitimate scares!

Directed by Addison Heimann, Hypochondriac starts with one of the more disturbing scenes you could ever imagine — a mother actively trying to kill her son, Will (Zach Villa). While it should go without saying, Will’s Mom is not well. She’s deep into some serious mental health issues. Not the run of the mill “I’m not feeling like myself” issues, but lasting and profound “the CIA is out to get me” mental health issues. 

Fast forward many years and we’re reintroduced to Will as a fully functioning adult who has turned his love of pottery into a full-time job. Will is so perfectly functioning that he is even able to help out his co-worker, Sasha (Yumarie Morales), who has been experiencing panic attacks of her own. Will and his partner Luke (Devon Graye) are also working through their issues, but nothing out of the ordinary. That is until Will starts receiving very peculiar packages and phone messages from his Mom. 

In turn, Will begins to have difficulties with the functioning of his arms, becomes irritable, and, no surprise here, begins to actively hallucinate. While Will seeks out medical attention the doctors all universally respond that his maladies are stress-related and passively indicate that there’s nothing to worry about. Accordingly, Will and his partner seek out a weekend getaway courtesy of Will’s co-worker. Yet in a rather peculiar move, Will brings along a pile of psychedelic mushrooms that were contained in one of the many piles of weird ephemera from his Mom. 

ATMOSfx! Woo!
You have to feel this rug!

As Will and Luke begin to relax in a bath of psychedelia the wheels rapidly start to fall off. Will’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch as he’s confronted by a real/imagined wolf character that may be providing him with some rather questionable life guidance. As the drugs wear off Will is confronted with the fact that a) this all might be in his head, b) the wolf might be real/imagined, c) he doesn’t have any physical problems, and/or d) his mental health might be devolving in the same way as his Mom’s.  Long story-short, genetic coding is a drag.

The complex layers that Addison Heimann is able to juggle in Hypochondriac is nothing short of amazing. By dribbling out Will’s symptoms in a slow but deliberative way the audience is able to experience a mental breakdown and see the difficulties of diagnosing and treating patients’ vagaries. The real scares don’t come in the form of ghosts, chainsaws, or other external factors. Quite the opposite. The scares in Hypochondriac come from the internal fear that each one of us is an incredibly close step away from complete lunacy. You don’t know how or when it will come, but each of us is faced with the dreaded possibility that our mind is constantly walking on a tightrope with a razor blade safety net. 

In much the same way that 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death toys with reality and insanity, Hypochondriac creates a myopic world where anything is possible. Lurking right around the corner there might be a vampire, a ghost, or worse yet, some parent-induced trauma from 20 years ago that’s never been dealt with properly. 

Not since Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant 2018 dedication of mental health in Unsane has there been a film that manages to simultaneously educate and scare the living daylights out of us. Hypochondriac, courtesy of a brilliant performance by Zach Villa as Will, provides empathy and a rich, but painful, understanding of the precarious nature of our brains. 

Hypochondriac is likely Rated R and it had its world premiere at SXSW.

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