I first watched writer/director Anna Baumgarten's remarkable filmmaking debut Disfluency during its world premiere at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival.
Then, I set it aside.
It wasn't a conscious choice. But, there was something inside me that wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to think about the film. I wasn't ready to review the film. Somewhere deep inside me, my entire being interrupted itself from moving forward with my otherwise usual fest routine.
I sat down today to watch Disfluency again, partly out of encouragement from a peer's advocacy for the film and partly, quite honestly, because the film was saying something to me and I felt like in some weird way I need to say something back.
If I were to describe my own experiences with trauma, I would likely find myself using the word "interruption." Trauma interrupts everything. Trauma interrupts communication and wonder, relationships and productivity, developmental processes and connectedness. In the case of Disfluency's Jane (Libe Barer), trauma interrupts her upcoming college graduation and much more.
We're introduced to Jane as she is returning home after a semester interrupted by undisclosed trauma, her graduation is suspended perilously somewhere in the future as the promising young woman and future speech therapist grapples with knowns, unknowns and, well, interruptions. Having had her future interrupted, at least for now, she returns home with few obligations other than making sense out of the senseless and re-connecting with her parents, her elder sister Lacey (played by Barer's real-life sister Ariela Barer), and childhood friends Dylan (Travis Tope), Kennedy (Kimiko Singer), and longtime crush Jordan (Dylan Arnold) who seems ready to return that interest now.
The problem is that everything is interrupted. For Jane, everything that once was is now interrupted by incomplete memories and momentary flashbacks. Relationships, once filled with wonder and innocence, are now marred by seemingly uncontrollable blips and, by now you get the point, disfluencies.
Based upon a short film that Baumgarten also wrote and that was directed by Laura Holliday, Disfluency is one of the most effective films I've seen on the subject of trauma precisely because Baumgarten refuses to re-traumatize for the sake of effective drama. This doesn't mean that we don't become witness to Jane's trauma response - we do. It means that in every frame of Disfluency, trauma is recognized both powerful and yet, in some ways, a blip to steal a word spoken by Jane's speech professor (the always marvelous Molly Hagan). There's never a sense in Disfluency that Baumgarten is going to abandon Jane even when those around her are, at least initially, saying all the wrong things and responding in ways that are understandable but not particularly helpful.
I get the sense that Baumgarten loves Jane and, in turn, I've long believed that it's love that restores us and guides us toward a sort of soulful reconstruction of our interrupted places and spaces. This doesn't mean, of course, that life's traumas and dramas are healed easily and there's nothing, and I mean nothing, easy about Disfluency, a film that had me flinching from familiarity on more than one occasion and downright sobbing even more frequently.
There are scenes here that are, quite simply, mesmerizing.
Libe Barer is exceptional as Jane, intelligent and intuitive and insightful and uncomfortably intimate. We feel her interruptions and we feel her searching for words and thoughts and feelings that are lost somewhere amidst the fogginess of trauma and painful things that life can do to us even when we've lived a good life and done everything right. If there's any justice in the cinematic world, this is a breakout performance for the wonderful Barer.
I was similarly in awe of Chelsea Alden as Amber, who graduated alongside Jane but soon after found herself experiencing motherhood. These two build the kind of friendship we all long for, a sort of tapestry of playfulness and trust, function and safety. Jane is able to teach Amber how to communicate with her son; Amber is able to give Jane the safe space to say the things she's not yet found the words to speak. The brilliance of these scenes is guided by Baumgarten's creative and inspired script and the ability of Alden and Barer to bring it all to life with simplicity and sincerity.
Ariela Barer is wonderful as Lacey. While it could have felt like a gimmick to cast real-life sisters, here it feels vital and necessary and it fuels this relationship's transformation.
There are others, of course. Dylan Arnold brings honesty and truthfulness to Jordan, while Travis Tope absolutely wrecked me toward film's end in a scene that made sense yet I never saw coming. I've long admired the work of Molly Hagan and here she takes what could have easily been a one-note role and absolutely nails what is essentially a role that serves as the bookends for the film.
John Fisher's lensing for the film is pristine and immersive. Fisher manages to immerse us in Jane's experiences without traumatizing us or Jane. It's creative, natural camera work that works beautifully. The same is true for Nathan Alexander's original music, deeply felt yet never maudlin or dominating. Alexander wondrously creates an atmosphere that feels honest and true and enveloping.
After its world premiere at Heartland International Film Festival, Disfluency deservedly picked up the Jury Award for Narrative Feature at Austin Film Festival and also screened at Calgary International Film Festival. It's a film that deserves all the accolades it's destined to receive.
For some, Disfluency will likely seem overly obvious or even preachy. Quite honestly, they are wrong. Instead, Disfluency is exactly the story that Jane needs it to be, a story of interruptions and stops and starts and silent spaces and empty words. It's a story that is obvious, at times, because that is what Jane's traumatized heart and mind can filter. It's also preachy, at times, because that is so often the experience that those who experience trauma have in trying to move forward and heal and bridge the interruptions.
Disfluency is exactly the film that it needs to be with one of 2021's best performances from Libe Barer and an Independent Spirit worthy directorial debut from Anna Baumgarten.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic