×

Sundance Film Review: ‘Bedlam’

The crisis in treatment, or lack thereof, for America's mentally ill citizens is examined in this competent if overstuffed documentary.

Director:
Kenneth Paul Rosenberg
With:
Johanna, Monte, Todd, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, Dr. Lacsina, Dr. Dias, Richard Friedman, Bob Zitlin, E. Fuller Torrey, Patrisse Cullors, Charisse, Zev Yaroslavsky, Robin Ellis, Dr. McGee, Stephen Mitchell, Gavin Newsom, Sara Epstein, Delilah, Timothy McDermott.

1 hour 26 minutes

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg’s “Bedlam” examines the crisis of mentally ill Americans wandering the streets (or crowding jails) with scant services to help them. It’s a huge if under-reported issue that gets welcome if not particularly penetrating analysis in this documentary, which spreads itself too thin over too much terrain to make any great impact. Nonetheless, it’s a competently made overview that will be a solid bet for appropriate broadcast slots.

“I became a psychiatrist because of my sister, and I became a filmmaker because I wanted to understand and tell our story,” says the director early on, narrating over photos from his family’s “last happy year” when he was a teen. Shortly afterward, his beloved older sister Merle plunged into mental health woes that plagued her for the rest of her life.

But Rosenberg doesn’t return to this element until late in the film, occupying most of its first hour with less personal material. There’s a too-brief summary of 20th-century treatment methods, from “insulin coma therapy” and lobotomies to the psychopharmaceuticals of today; and a similar rush through public policies, which began dismantling the once-extensive state mental hospital network under President Kennedy. JFK’s idea was to take patients out of institutional isolation and reintegrate them into society, with treatments managed by community mental health centers. But President Reagan ended federal funding for such efforts, and states were unwilling to assume the financial burden. The result was today’s epidemic of “crazy” homeless people living on the streets for lack of the custodial care options of yesteryear.

Often, the casualties of the system land in already overburdened hospital emergency rooms, where staff routinely deal with violent psychotics and other problem patients without the resources (legal or otherwise) to hold them long enough to effect any real positive change. Rosenberg focuses on one Los Angeles ER considered among the nation’s best in handling this burden. But even there, medical professionals suffer high stress and burnout coping with the “ridiculous merry-go-round” of recidivist crisis cases.

It’s at that location we first meet three patients whose progress is followed sporadically over the next two to three years. Johanna is a young woman diagnosed as bipolar. She stabilizes somewhat under proper medication but edges toward chaos again when her caretaker father’s health problems leave her living alone in their shared house. Monte is a mostly gentle giant with a supportive family, but as a large black man who experiences episodes of paranoia, he inevitably risks being seen as a threat by police, and arrested. Perpetually angry middle-aged white guy Todd likewise finds himself in frequent trouble with the law, and is ill-equipped to handle his long stint of homelessness. Social services are finally able to secure an apartment for him, but even that happy end can be easily be reversed.

A recurrent theme is the chronic lack of institutional support that forever increases the wait for — and odds against — real help for people whose needs are immediate. In the 1950s, half a million Americans were housed in state mental hospitals. Problematic as those places often were, the subsequent deinstitutionalization trend simply eradicated 90% of such hospitals, which also provided living quarters. Now an estimated 350,000 mentally ill sleep on the streets each night — their other principal “home” being county jail cells.

Rosenberg consults some experts and activists in the field, but “Bedlam” never quite achieves an informative or emotional impact beyond a quick pulse-taking of the complex and catastrophic situation that has become a new societal norm. When the director finally focuses on his schizophrenic sister’s sad history, his recounting feels glib, awkwardly shifting what had been an objective documentary toward the realm of subjective confessional. The one important point made in this latter part of the film is that his family’s shamed secrecy over Merle’s instability only worsened her plight, as is too often the case.

That first-person thread, as well as any of the other principal ones in “Bedlam,” might easily have floated the entire documentary to more powerful overall effect. As is, the feature functions as a decent introduction of the issues for those who are unfamiliar, but it’s likely to strike others — particularly urban dwellers who see the homeless mentally ill every day — as superficial. The disparate elements have been competently edited into a fast-moving if arguably over-compact whole by Jim Cricchi and Rosenberg.

At the close we’re told as many as 15 million Americans suffer from “serious mental illness.” At a time when a White House administration once again seems primarily interested in cutting public service programs, “Bedlam” — titled after the notorious London “madhouse” founded six centuries ago — does manage to provide incriminating evidence that we’ve become a society that considers many of its neediest citizens too unimportant to care for.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Bedlam'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 22, 2019. In Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition). Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Upper East Films and ITVS production in association with Duck in a Tree, Exploding Ticket Prods., Gravel Pit Pictures, Willow Pond Films. (International sales: Ro*co Films, Sausalito.) Producers: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg. Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen. Co-producers: Joan Churchill, Alan Barker.

Crew: Director: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg. Screenplay: Rosenberg, Peter Miller. Camera (color, HD): Joan Churchill, Bob Richman, Buddy Squires. Editors: Jim Cricchi, Rosenberg. Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Juriaans.

With: Johanna, Monte, Todd, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, Dr. Lacsina, Dr. Dias, Richard Friedman, Bob Zitlin, E. Fuller Torrey, Patrisse Cullors, Charisse, Zev Yaroslavsky, Robin Ellis, Dr. McGee, Stephen Mitchell, Gavin Newsom, Sara Epstein, Delilah, Timothy McDermott.

More Film

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content