Empathetic and yet ultimately too draggy to elicit much engagement with its paper-thin story, “Elizabeth Blue” proves at once well-intentioned and inert. Inspired by his own struggles, director Vincent Sabella’s drama casts a compassionate eye on the efforts of a young woman to gain some measure of control over her mental illness. It’s an ordeal that’s crafted in consistently believable terms. However, with scant narrative incident and even less momentum, the film feels like a short stretched out to feature length, and seems better suited to find an audience on streaming services than in theaters.
The film commences with an elaborate single-take shot that moves through a psychiatric hospital, where patients wander the halls and an attendant notifies Elizabeth (Anna Schafer) that she has a phone call. This winding composition is followed by a series of severe close-ups — of the phone receiver against Elizabeth’s mouth, and its cord between her fingers — for the ensuing conversation. The prologue establishes Sabella and cinematographer Joel Marsh’s formal skillfulness, although there’s an unmistakable and off-putting look-at-me quality to these early aesthetic gestures (which are drenched in Vivaldi and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”), as if the filmmaker were trying too hard to gussy up rather standard incidents.
That impression doesn’t dissipate once Elizabeth — having informed her mother she’s leaving the facility to move in with her fiancé, Grant (Ryan Vincent) — arrives at Grant’s apartment looking anything but stable. With big, vacant eyes and a long, unsure face, Schafer’s protagonist is clearly in need of aid, and thus she’s soon visiting Dr. Bowman (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) for further counseling and new medication that might alleviate her torment. In the two characters’ chats about the physical and emotional side effects of certain prescriptions, which lead Elizabeth to admit she sometimes hallucinates a raccoon she likes to pet, the movie conveys an authentic sense of the head-spinning hurdles faced by people suffering from the sorts of issues (schizophrenia, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder) that plague Elizabeth.
Sabella and co-writer Alfred D. Huffington’s script subsequently charts Elizabeth’s ups and downs in and around her new home, with Grant reacting in naturally frustrated and supportive ways toward his bride-to-be, and Elizabeth trying to ignore the voices in her head (embodied, at one point, by Christopher Ashman) that tell her to give up and kill herself. Ultimately, she has a heated exchange with her mom (Kathleen Quinlan), which exposes a variety of underlying grievances, many of them focused on Elizabeth’s absentee dad.
The film’s cast handles the material with aplomb, with Schafer in particular fully inhabiting the beleaguered Elizabeth, who — no matter her ailments or ticks, including constantly writing wedding-related phrases in her notebook — comes across as a sympathetic figure enduring a persistent nightmare.
Sluggish plotting, however, soon becomes tiresome, especially since there’s never a real sense that the film is building to some meaningful destination. After too many meandering sequences, “Elizabeth Blue” eventually does decide on an end-point, although no matter its thematic aptness, said conclusion has a gimmicky genre-movie quality that’s at odds with the preceding action’s air of gravity. Sabella’s confident directorial hand suggests he has a better film in his future, but he’d be wise to avoid his habit of embellishing every moment with suffocating — and frequently on-the-nose — music, which here negates most of the drama’s emotional impact.