Directed & Written
by Addison Heimann
Starring Zach Villa, Devon Graye, Madeline Zima, Yumarie Morales, Marlene Forte, Chris Doubek, & Paget Brewster.
Drama / Horror / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS.
Turn back, or be spoiled.
This is your only warning!
Telling fictional stories about very real issues can really go wrong, especially because no community, or any group of individuals who experience the same issues, is a monolith. Fiction about mental illness has historically been negative, though plenty of storytellers throughout history have tried to change that, particularly in recent years. Addison Heimann’s Hypochondriac is a clever, painful, and surreal exploration of the ways serious mental illness can affect someone’s life. The film’s also a story about those who do and don’t persevere, and how that’s not just the sufferer’s burden but the burden of those who love them, too.
Hypochondriac follows Will (Zach Villa), a young artist who makes a living creating high-priced pottery. Though he has a difficult family past, he’s doing pretty well for himself. Suddenly everything changes after his long-estranged mother (Marlene Forte) makes contact again, bringing back much more than the past. After that, Will finds himself confronting the same mental illness from which his mother suffered. At first it’s a few visits to the doctor’s office. Then it gets much more serious, and far more dark.
The core of Hypochondriac deals with the return of Will’s Gothic trauma from the past, a repressed part of his life he hoped would never come back to haunt him. Will starts receiving packages from his mother full of her own mentally ill ramblings and pieces of the past, along with a recorded message. This forces his repressed traumatic past to begin to emerge, along with symptoms of his mental illness.
Will’s mom becomes a very Gothic figure, like a ghost returning from the past to make its mark on her son’s present. She’s somewhat a figure in Will’s life like the wolf we see—the surreal embodiment of Will’s mental illness—as she becomes another voice in his head, urging him to distrust Luke and his father, among other things.
Will’s boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye) is a crucial character, not only because he and Will provide a great presentation of a gay couple on film—including some ass eating, we love to see it!—he also helps touch on the toxic masculine qualities that still exist in men amongst the gay community. It becomes clear quickly that Will doesn’t like to talk about his traumatic past, nor is he a big fan of talking about his emotions in general. Luke pokes fun at him while calling out the toxic masculinity that holds men back from emotional honesty, which, in turns, hinders proper mental health: “Caveman Will, talk to me.”
Luke is further a strong parallel to Will’s dad (Chris Doubek). We see how Will’s dad responded often very coldly to his mentally ill wife, and does somewhat with his son, too. While we do witness troublesome events concerning Will’s mother, including quiet violent ones, we also get a sense that Will’s father didn’t do everything he could in the right ways to help her get better. In contrast, Luke is supportive of Will, even when things get very tough. At the end of Hypochondriac there’s a hope for Will, that having the right support system, along with a desire to feel mentally healthy, is going to help him learn to deal/live with his illness.
Heimann’s film touches on some of the lesser discussed realities of mental illness in fiction, such as the fact that mental illness is often physical, too; this leads to a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness by those who’ve never experienced it. “You would be shocked at how the mind can affect the body” gets repeated a few times by a couple doctors Will goes to see. Physical effects can and do occur with most forms of mental illness, though especially so for an illness like schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses that can cause hallucinations such as Will experiences.
Will continually injures himself due to hallucinations, from banging up his arms to brutally scalding them in the kiln at his job. These injuries are also symbolic of the way mental illness attempts to rob us of the things we enjoy and love the most, like our hobbies, or our careers, which Will experiences when his hallucinations lead him to injure his arms over and over, the wolf inside him attempting to ruin his artistic outlet.
Hypochondriac has an actually hopeful ending that may be misinterpreted as a negative by some folks. The final 5-10 minutes of the film actually speak to a positive acceptance of mental illness: that we, the mentally ill, must accept that we cannot be cured, we can’t take a pill that will eradicate the mental illness in our minds, and it’s crucial to our survival to understand that mental illness is a lifelong struggle. In the end, Will comes to terms with his mental health issues, and the final moment of him with Luke and the wolf—the animalistic symbol of his mental illness, a riff off Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko—all three of them sitting together is an image of Will’s acceptance that he, and his loved ones, must coexist with his mental illness; and it is possible, surrounded by the right people and with the correct supports in place, which is exactly where Will finds himself by the last few minutes of the film.
There are already those who’ve responded to Hypochondriac, and its ending, with criticism claiming that it negatively portrays mental illness, but that’s so far from what feels like the film’s actual intended message. Heimann doesn’t shy from portraying the uncomfortable realities of serious mental illness; it is a very honest film. Any piece of fiction that approaches social issues, such as mental illness, will not represent everyone’s experience. Director-writer Addison Heimann specifically based Will on himself and his own personal experiences with mental illness—at the start of the film appears the subtitle: “Based on a real breakdown.”
Hypochondriac is not a blanket statement about everyone’s experiences, it’s a raw, harrowing tale of one person dealing with serious mental illness and navigating its damaging, surreal effects. It’s not all doom and gloom, either. There are darkly comic moments, like a spoof of Ghost with Will and his mental illness, embodied in the wolf, making pottery erotically together like Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. That’s because the heart of Hypochondriac is decidedly positive. It’s a powerful story about the anxieties and fears that come along with mental illness, yet it’s just as much, if not more, about the triumph of the human spirit and the transformative loyalty of those who love you.