Eschewing medical explanations and expert opinions, “Of Two Minds” examines the experience of bipolar disorder through firsthand testimony from three people coping with it in varying ways. Following these individuals over a three-year period, helmers Doug Blush and Lisa Klein create three intertwined narratives with additional interwoven strands, tracing fascinating processes of adaptation. Hoping to stress their subjects’ dignity and courage, the filmmakers opt for a formal visual aesthetic that sometimes lacks warmth or immediacy. But given the prevailing appeal of docus that explore mental illness, the intelligent, compassionate “Minds” should flourish.
The film allows its three subjects — stylist Cheri Keating, architect/artist Carlton Davis and writer/journalist Liz Spikol — to speak for themselves. Indeed, they even supply their own imagery: Keating through a self-shot opening sequence in which she dances her interpretation of mania; Spikol through the YouTube videos that have become part of her journalistic explorations of bipolar disorder; and Davis through his two-sided paintings and illustrated journals.
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Change is Keating’s byword. She moved 37 times in 37 years, the camera recording one such displacement to a particularly verdant corner of Los Angeles. The filmmakers also track her through the ups and downs of her on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend, a musician/artist who discovers midway through their romance that he, too, is bipolar.
Spikol, whose disorder was triggered by a rape at age 17, functions relatively normally only when her disease becomes the subject of her work — through her blog, her YouTube videos and her column in the Philadelphia Weekly, all of which the docu samples visually. Her lively Yiddish mom and boyfriend provide additional stability.
Fifty-seven-year-old Davis recounts his wild adventures as cross-dressing alter ego Carlotta, and his self-destructive flirtation with crack cocaine before his loyal wife steered him toward a diagnosis of his condition and treatment with psychotropic drugs.
All expound on the difficulty of tamping down the godlike self-confidence of mania or lifting the pain of depression. They admit to having had different reactions to drugs that could modify their behavior. Keating finds that medication destroys her creativity and renders the world flat and boring, experimenting instead with acupuncture, Chinese medicines and farmers’ markets. Spikol has narrowed down her meds, finding a precarious balance, while Davis feels completely cured by his psychotropics while maintaining his artistic drive.
Suicide remains an ever-present possibility that haunts the film. It felled helmer Klein’s bipolar sister, and the pic’s key subjects all once struggled or still struggle against it. The filmmakers at one point include a fourth story in which the friends and family of a young girl who killed herself speak of the impossibility of accepting her fate.
Though the protagonists all speak directly to the camera, helmer-lenser Blush maintains a careful distance, his serenely static compositions often belying the jitteriness of the commentary. Unlike “Tarnation,” in which a handheld, experimental camera sought to imitate crazed inner states, “Of Two Minds” imposes a certain externalized aesthetic that wrests control back into the filmmakers’ hands.