×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide’

Mental illness and artistic expression are probed by a surviving sibling in “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide.”

With:
Hope Litoff, Todd Hagopian, Charlie Hagopian, Caroline Hagopian, Jane Wagman, Renee Rubin, Sarah Brokaw, Susanna Green, Alan Danneels, Jonathan Hayes, Beth Levison, Thomas Safian, Gregory P. Mink.

A difficult sibling’s tragic death is the catalyst in “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide.” But if documentarian Hope Litoff initially expects belatedly confronting the titular event will result in some sense of inner peace, she — and everyone around her — are alarmed when instead the “process” sends her down a personal rabbit hole of guilt, denial and addiction. Gripping and discomfiting, this first directorial feature by the veteran editor is the kind of diaristic inquiry that can seem self-indulgent but here sports a fearlessness that transcends vanity — at times it’s downright unflattering.

In late 2008 photographer Ruth Litoff was found in her Manhattan loft, having finally “succeeded” after 20 or more suicide attempts over many years. Police on the scene said they’d never seen anything like it — her entire apartment was meticulously prepared for the event, with umpteen notes, presents, etc., left labeled with instructions for disbursement to various friends and family.

Six years later, younger sis Hope empties out the storage locker Ruth’s remaining possessions have spent the interim in, taking a short-term Brooklyn flat to spread out and comb through the miscellany. There is, of course, her sister’s artistic work, which encompassed not just a wide range of photography but collages, sculpture and other media. Then there’s the more blatantly autobiographical evidence not just of journals, datebooks and such but a vast collection of prescription-drug bottles — some still partly full.

We gradually glean that Ruth was a dazzling, high-achieving role model who began turning into an overdependent, mercurial problem at a young age. (Her first suicide attempt came at 13.) Eventually she was diagnosed as bipolar, though in retrospect Hope suspects borderline personality disorder (not as yet prominent on the psychiatric landscape) might have been her actual condition. In any case, her severe mood swings, depression bouts and suicidal ideations left a trail of broken relationships and other external upheavals.

Both girls reacted to their affluent but dysfunctional parents’ crumbling marriage: Hope escaped into recreational drugs and blackout drinking from early adolescence. When we meet her here, she’s been sober for many years. Excavating her sister’s things proves so unsettling that at a certain point “32 Pills” offers the bleak on-camera spectacle of her ordering a double vodka at a bar — her first drink in nearly two decades. It won’t be a one-off lapse either.

Even before that calamity occurs, her husband, Todd, worries that she won’t be able to handle the emotions this investigation is sure to stir up. They also have two young children to factor in. The extent to which the director-“star” nosedives under the weight of grief and guilt is sometimes gruesomely explicit, as when Todd harangues Hope for neglecting her offspring. Elsewhere, producer Beth Levison expresses alarm over Litoff’s willingness to ingest decade-old prescription drugs, and the filmmaker justifies increasingly chaotic actions with a classic litany of addict-speak excuses and fibs.

There is light at the end of this tunnel, embodied in the light boxes Hope installs of her sister’s photographic images at Bellevue Hospital—celebrating Ruth’s work by completing an unrealized project at the psychiatric institution where she’d committed herself several times. But it’s to the film’s credit that this symbolic act only brings a limited sense of catharsis. Hope may have laid Ruth to rest at last to a degree, but her own issues will be alive and kicking for some time.

Talking-head footage is kept brief, embracing a range of viewpoints (old boyfriends, schoolmates, professional colleagues) but never becoming a dominant factor. Litoff and editor Toby Shimin nimbly package a complicated story whose myriad themes — artistic expression and mental illness being just the tip of the iceberg — emerge in a not-strictly-chronological telling comprising diverse present-day and archival materials.

Film Review: ‘32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide’

Reviewed at Hot Docs (Artscapes), May 2, 2017. Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: (Docu) An HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Impact Partners, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Chicago Media Project and The Documentary Channel of a Little Darkroom Films production. (International sales: The Film Sales Company, New York City.) Producer: Beth Levison. Executive producer: Sheila Nevins.

Crew: Director: Hope Litoff. Camera (color, HD): Daniel B. Gold. Editor: Toby Shimin. Music: T. Griffin.

With: Hope Litoff, Todd Hagopian, Charlie Hagopian, Caroline Hagopian, Jane Wagman, Renee Rubin, Sarah Brokaw, Susanna Green, Alan Danneels, Jonathan Hayes, Beth Levison, Thomas Safian, Gregory P. Mink.

More Film

  • Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf

    Film News Roundup: AMC, Regal to Leave 'Roma' Out of Best Picture Showcases

    In today’s film news roundup, “Roma” will not be in the best picture showcases at AMC and Regal, “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church” gets a release and SAG-AFTRA’s David White has a new appointment. ‘ROMA’ SPURNED AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas are leaving Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” out of their upcoming annual showings of the contenders for [...]

  • First Look at SAG Awards' Cuban

    First Look at SAG Awards' Cuban-Inspired After-Party (EXCLUSIVE)

    Celebrities at this year’s SAG Awards won’t have to go far for some tropical fun. Sunday’s annual post-show gala, hosted by People magazine for the 23rd year, is set to feature a Cuban-themed party space adjacent to the Shrine Auditorium. “We’re kind of going back to more of a thematic element. I have some close [...]

  • Paul DavidsonVariety Big Data Summit Presented

    Listen: The Orchard's Paul Davidson on Surviving Sundance Bidding Wars

    Hollywood heads to Park City, Utah this week in the hopes of finding the next big Sundance Film Festival breakout. Paul Davidson, executive vice president of film and television at The Orchard, plans to be in the thick of it. In today’s edition of Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast, Davidson opens up about The Orchard’s strategy [...]

  • Young Tony Soprano in 'Sopranos' Movie:

    James Gandolfini's Son Michael Gandolfini Cast as Tony Soprano in 'Sopranos' Movie

    Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, will play the young Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the  prequel movie to the television series “The Sopranos.” “It’s a profound honor to continue my dad’s legacy while stepping into the shoes of a young Tony Soprano,” Gandolfini said. “I’m thrilled that I am [...]

  • Bradley Cooper A Star Is Born

    The Message of the Oscar Nominations: You'd Better Have a Social Message

    Each year at the Left Coast crack of dawn, when the Oscar nominations are announced, there’s generally at least one major nomination many pundits were predicting that fails to materialize. When that happens, entertainment media tends to rise up as one and say the s-word: snub. In truth, it’s not usually a snub; it’s just [...]

  • Elton John and Mark Ronson

    Elton John to 'Shallow' Songwriter Mark Ronson: 'You're Going to Win the Oscar'

    Elton John is willing to bet that Mark Ronson will win the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born.” The nominations were announced this morning. The legendary performer spoke to Ronson on the latest episode of his radio show “Elton John’s Rocket Hour” on Apple Music’s Beats 1.  “You’re having a [...]

  • Olivia Colman Colin Firth Helen Mirren

    Playing a British Monarch Is a Step on the Road to Oscar Glory - Again

    “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote of Britain’s care-burdened monarchs. Try telling that to the Academy. Once again, playing British royalty has proved to be a tried-and-true route to Oscar glory, with Olivia Colman as the latest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for portraying an occupant of the British [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content