Hot Docs 2014 #3: Matters of the Mind

Our Rating

Today was a day of rampant indecision. I couldn’t decide what to see. Screening times conflicted, and there wasn’t enough time between certain films to grab something to eat… or arrive at the next venue without having had to perform wind sprints along University Avenue. I think I must have changed my schedule at least a half-dozen times and, even then, when I finally thought I’d nailed it all down and headed out for my screenings, I wasn’t entirely sure that I wouldn’t change my mind again en route to a box office.

Turns out, I didn’t waiver further, and wound up with a pair of solid documentaries.

First up was Harmontown (7/8), a comedic road movie that tells the story of embattled Community creator Dan Harmon, who decides to take his titular podcast on a 20-city tour… and then have director Neil Berkeley, who previously helmed Beauty is Embarrassing (which I saw and loved at Hot Docs 2012), shoot the whole terrific, messy, chaotic thing.

Like Beauty…, Harmontown centers on a creative genius who’s determined to stay true to his own vision at all costs. In Harmon’s case, though, that means his devotion to his own brilliant writing and comedy often result in combative relationships with his colleagues, superiors and, sometimes, his friends. The film follows Harmon and company – including the podcast’s host, Jeff Davis, Harmon’s girlfriend Erin and fan-turned-sidekick Spencer – as they go from city to city, playing in comedy clubs and comic-book stores. And, as the journey progresses, so do the insights into Harmon’s work, mind and demons.

Though filled with plenty of big laughs and celeb cameos (Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Jack Black and the entire cast of Community, among others), there’s a darkness to it, as well. As gifted as he is, Harmon is also clearly troubled. Possibly an alcoholic. Somewhat self-destructive. Yet still able to unite outsiders everywhere and make his legions of loyal fans feel loved and understood. And it’s that juxtaposition that adds meat (and heart) to the doc, as Harmon’s connections with others begin to inform his relationship with himself.

On a sidenote: what’s with the weird policy at Hart House to block off the entire last three center rows of the theatre “for latecomers and the rush line”??? Aren’t rush seats supposed to be doled out AFTER all the regular ticketholders have been seated and the number of empty seats left over have been counted? And why should latecomers be given premium seating while folks who arrived on time are stuck scavenging on the fringes or in the front row for somewhere to sit just because they had a bad spot in a long admission line? One very adamant (and very correct, IMO) woman – who was trying to find a seat and didn’t understand why she couldn’t sit in the blocked-off area – was challenging the venue manager about the policy and said, “So, you’re telling me if I leave now, and come back in LATE, I can sit here?” I think someone needs to rethink the logic (and fairness) behind this curious seating policy.

The film unfolds over 18 months at the Brockville Mental Health Centre, which houses 46 patients all convicted of violent crimes but deemed “not criminally responsible” due to their mental-health disorders. Kastner and crew document the facility’s goings-on, zeroing in on four patients (two women and two men) and telling their stories. The most compelling is Michael, who suffers from schizophrenia and, in 2002, killed his own mother. Quiet, anxious but thoughtful and measured, he’s an example of the system working… but even his father has reservations about a complete discharge from Brockville. His was the story I’ll remember most from the film, I think.

Thing is, though, the film as a whole didn’t hang together well for me. I never had a sense of time – one moment, someone’s outside in what looks like summer, but the next, everyone’s in parkas on a snowy stoop. Hair gets longer, then shorter, then longer again, then shorter, so it was hard to get a sense of how much time was passing, and whether the sequences in the film were taking place chronologically or whether they’d simply been edited together in a way that made the most sense, narratively.

Kastner’s access was impressive, as was the honesty of the staff and patients, but it felt like the scope of the project was just too huge to cram into 88 minutes. As a result, Out of Mind wasn’t the full-bodied, rich film I’d been expecting – especially given the rampant praise for it in the local media for the past week – but more like a quick overview. Perhaps my expectations had been raised too much? Could be.

Happily, though, I unexpectedly ran into a dear friend while waiting in line, so she and I had a chance to catch up and hang out, which made for a wonderful way to end the day.


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