“Free the Mind” is an elegant if somewhat overlong docu about the pioneering work of U. of Wisconsin psychologist Richard Davidson, who employs techniques of yoga and mediation along with the findings of neuroscience to help patients with ADHD and PTSD take control of their runaway emotions. Beautifully crafted by Danish director-cinematographer Phie Ambo (“Mechnical Love”), and with an unusually prominent credit for a “visual designer” (Anders Ladegaard), the film’s style is a rapt combination of hushed intimacy and gliding elegance. There isn’t a jittery smash-and-grab handheld shot in sight. The calming effect of these images feels downright therapeutic — and fittingly so. Davidson says his work was inspired in part by a meeting with the Dalai Lama, so that his notion of “taking intentional control of our own minds” also has a spiritual dimension. After wide fest play, the pic opened Stateside Sept. 20 on a single Gotham screen.
In sensitively recorded scenes, the film focuses on the treatment of a five-year-old boy named Will (suffering from ADHD) and of a group of recent veterans with post-traumatic stress symptoms such as uncontrollable explosions of anger. The techniques employed are sometimes very simple, almost metaphorical. We see how the agitated parcels in a snow globe help Will to perceive and begin to control the agitation in his mind. The vets achieve what are said to be measurable reductions of symptoms of fear and anger and improved sleep patterns.
The film follows Davidson’s honorable determination to be clear about the limits of his knowledge. Even when techniques work, he admits, he doesn’t always know why. “How consciousness arises from this blob of matter that weighs three pounds,” he says, “is still very much a mystery.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that the very modesty of the film’s tone, admirable as it is, makes “Free the Mind” seem too tentative to justify its 79-minute running time. But as a PBS or cable presentation, or as a homevid release for specialist audiences and classroom use, this lovingly crafted presentation should have a long life. The film’s vaguely new age-y spiritual subtext could also generate some word of mouth, while director Ambo’s touch is light enough to avoid turning off viewers allergic to this sort of material.