A riveting and radical act of empathy, with actress Deragh Campbell’s unforgettably embodied portrayal of mental instability as the eye of its storm, Canadian director Kazik Radwanski’s astonishing third feature (after “How Heavy This Hammer” and “Tower”) is a brief, bracing burst of microbudget indie filmmaking at its most powerful. “Anne at 13,000 ft” might look like mumblecore, but it plays as a psychological horror and a ticking-clock thriller that morphs into a wild, windswept tangle of incipient, but never quite arriving tragedy.
Anne (Campbell) has an unspecified anxiety disorder. It’s dormant but with her in the deceptively calm prologue as she cradles a butterfly in her hands and shows it to the kids in her charge at the daycare center where she works. It is with her when she goes on awkward Tinder dates and stutters through a sincere, raggedly emotional speech at the wedding of her best friend and co-worker Sarah (Dorothea Paas, radiating warmth and care). It is certainly with her when she interacts with her hopeful but wary mother (Lawrene Denkers), whose eggshell-gentle interactions with her daughter suggest a traumatic breakdown in Anne’s recent past.
The only time she seems free of her mind’s nagging, tugging, gnawing instability is when she can focus instead on the erratic curiosity of the children she minds (their whimsical non sequiturs about sharks or mermaids or curly hair give the film some unscripted levity). Or when, as at Sarah’s adventurous bachelorette party, she has just jumped out of an airplane.
Radwanski parachutes us into Anne’s life with little preparation and binds us to her as tightly as in a tandem skydive, in DP Nikolay Michaylov’s claustrophobic, rattled handheld closeups. At first, she is relatively high-functioning, adored by the kids because of her imaginative, no-holds-barred playfulness. But tensions with colleagues come to a boil, while her increasingly erratic and needy social behavior also jeopardizes her tentative relationship with Matt (Matt Johnson of “The Dirties”) whom she meets drunkenly at Sarah’s wedding.
Docudrama aesthetics and the improvisational authenticity of an excellent supporting cast populated with non-professionals somewhat belie the rigor of the film’s considered construction. In particular, Ajla Odobasic’s editing is extraordinary, often cutting before a sentence finishes, or just as an expression changes in a chaotic but controlled reflection of Anne’s fragmentary state of mind. In ignoring the more obvious beats and lulls that classical editing uses to cover its tracks, Radwanski and Odobasic instead embrace a quasi-avant-garde, intrusive cutting style, unadorned by score (the absence of music emphasizes the way the ambient noise of the world can at times assail an already embattled and struggling psyche). It not only slices the film’s running time down to an unusually lean 75 minutes, it also creates a feeling of unpredictability, of the earth trembling underfoot, as situations that seem primed to explode into disaster are defused across the space of one quick edit, while other, completely innocuous moments escalate disproportionately to an almost unbearable level of zinging tension.
The center of the vortex is Campbell’s nervy, electrified performance. It bears comparison with the usually incomparable Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” not just for its absolute lack of compromise, but also because it too understands the centripetal, seductive power that such personalities can exert over those around them. The volatility, the lack of boundary, that makes Anne impossible also makes her exciting, at least until you realize it emanates not from her but from her disorder. By that stage, we’ve been so thoroughly brought into sympathy with this demanding, difficult character — her solipsism, her terrible, self-sabotaging tendency to justify her outbursts as “jokes” and to regard any kindly meant inquiry as a value judgment on her “normality” — that even when those around her make entirely reasonable, self-protective decisions to withdraw from her, it feels like a cruel betrayal.
And so she find herself alone, overestimating her ability to stay on top of her insidious illness, even though the catastrophes that constantly threaten largely do not come to pass. If they did, it would be a kind of catharsis, and catharsis is an escape that vivid, volatile, vertiginous Anne cannot achieve. The exhilaration of skydiving is that, initially at least, spreadeagled against the rushing air, with the ground so far away, it feels like flying. But three feet or 13,000 feet off the ground, Anne is only ever falling.