Monty Lapica, Diane Venora, Michael Bowen, Kristina Anapau
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
"Self Medicated," an autobiographical film based upon the life of its writer and director, Monty Lapica, is the sort of film I love. It practically screams out "Richard will love me!"
Likewise, "Self Medicated" is the kind of film I HATE to review. To completely trash a film like "Self Medicated" feels like I'm trashing the person behind the film. I admire, I respect and I acknowledge Lapica both for the journey he has traveled and for the courage, conviction and commitment it required to bring this story to life. His story is one of hope, healing and inspiration. However, to praise this film solely because its story is inspiring is, at the very least, dishonest. Thus, a film like "Self Medicated" presents the greatest dilemma. How do I communicate my honest thoughts/feelings about the film, good or bad, without losing my objectivity, critical eye and my sensitivity?
The most obvious way to do this is, quite simply, to acknowledge one important fact. "Self Medicated" is the kind of film for which critics are not of the utmost importance. Some critics will undoubtedly praise the film for its authenticity, honesty and emotional intensity. Other critics will feel emotionally manipulated and will accuse the film of histrionics. While critics and awards are always important to independent films, a film such as "Self Medicated" is not made for critics. It is made for PEOPLE. There will be families who have been torn apart by grief, torn apart by children's issues, or torn apart by the mental health system who will resonate deeply with this film. Those who embrace this film, will do so with great passion. There are people who NEED this film, and it is for those people that Lapica undoubtedly made this film. People like myself who simply evaluate the film critically? We are not this film's target audience, and while our reviews may sting they are ultimately irrelevant.
The film, which also stars Lapica in the lead role, is the story of a 17-year-old boy who is unable to adjust when his father dies and begins a downward spiral into substance abuse, risky behaviors and academic failure. After repeated run-ins with the law and being kicked out of school, his mother (Diane Venora) contacts Brightway, a locked-down and corrupt psychiatric facility that kidnaps incorrigible patients in the middle of the night after their parents sign over custody. He encounters emotional and physical abuse in the facility, and after escaping (not once, but twice) he discovers that the answer to all of his problems lies within himself.
"Self Medicated" has played in over 15 festivals and garnered numerous awards including several "Best Feature" and "Audience Award" titles.
Despite a promising premise and interesting characters, I kept waiting for that moment when I would finally surrender to the film and its tragic, yet hopeful characters. That moment never came.
Sadly, my biggest problem lies in the performance of Lapica himself. Lapica was 24 when he filmed "Self Medicated." He LOOKS 24, he ACTS 24 and when he tries to act like an immature 17-year-old it was painfully awkward. Despite my admiration for his bringing this story to the screen, I can't help but feel that allowing another actor to play the lead role would have been the best choice.
Scenes in which his character, named Andrew in the film, is in severe distress are almost painful to watch...not because of the tragedy, but solely because of the performance. It constantly felt like Lapica was either forcing himself to go for a "primal scream" approach to acting OR he was holding himself back. Regardless, I not only never surrendered to his character, but I never even cared that much for him.
Likewise, the usually dependable Venora is basically limited here to playing a histrionic mother taking too many prescription meds. While she fares better than Lapica, I never found myself sympathizing with her character and her situation.
The only performance that truly shined was that of Kristina Anapau as his best friend Nicole. Anapau's performance balances both the gravity of her concern for his welfare, her deep love for him and her own knowledge of his mother's plans to send him away.
I don't doubt that Lapica based the "institution" on his own real life experiences. I'd never go so far as to doubt his recollection, however, I certainly doubt the way he recreated the experience on screen. The counselors, especially Dan (Michael Bowen) begin to become caricatures about halfway through the scenes.
The film's production values are generally acceptable, however, the lighting is often a tad too dark. This works effectively in the more suspenseful scenes, however, during conversations it becomes distracting. Finally, even Lapica's dialogue often feels stilted and forced. It's as if he opened up his own journals from psychotherapy and turned them into a script.
"Self Medicated" was a surprising disappointment during the 2006 Indianapolis International Film Festival. I expected to love this film, but found myself disengaged from the film by the halfway mark and it never brought me back in.
Lapica would have been better off writing this script and leaving it in the hands of a director who could have objectively brought the film's powerful message to life, perhaps still with Lapica in the lead role. However, with Lapica at the core of the film's writing, directing and acting the film constantly feels more like those manipulative therapy sessions that Andrew did so well in the early scenes of the film.
There's not many things harder than writing, directing and acting in your own production...whether it be stage or film. This difficulty becomes magnified when the story is autobiographical, and even more magnified when this story encompasses significant life experiences or tragedies. While I do, truly, admire Lapica's efforts here I can't deny I find the end result a disappointing exercise in lack of self-control.
This story deserves to be told. It truly NEEDS to be told. However, this is not the film that Lapica deserved. His story is powerful and, in many ways, inspiring. "Self Medicated," unfortunately, never transcends the drama of its own story and its abrupt, semi-hopeful ending feels far too abrupt and the ending is ultimately unsatisfying and unconvincing.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic