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Review: Broken Diamonds – “Manages to portray mental illness with a respectful and healthy dose of compassion and humanity”

Few films really tackle the subject of mental illness with the respect it deserves, without trending towards stereotypes or parody.  However, early on in director Peter Sattler‘s (Camp X-Ray) new film, Broken Diamonds, it becomes clear that this is a film willing to challenge itself, and its audience, to view mental illness in a different, and holistic way.  More than that, this film, for good reason feels distinctly personal.

Writer Steve Waverly creates what feels like an honest portrayal of schizophrenia, based on his relationship with his own sister who battles mental illness.  With this intimate knowledge of the disease, coupled with the filmmaker’s collaboration with health care providers and focus groups, there is a genuinely authentic sense of understanding and dignity to how this disease is depicted.  Broken Diamonds also uncovers the devastating impact mental illness can also have on the entire family.

Scott (Ben Platt) enters the restaurant where he is employed thinking he’s working a private party, but the event is really a surprise going away party for him.  Scott is realizing a lifelong dream to go to Paris and write a novel.  Minutes after arriving though, he receives a phone call from his step-mother, Cookie (Community‘s Yvette Nicole Brown) informing him that his father has suddenly passed away.  She asks him to pick up his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke) on the way to see their dad before he is taken to the crematorium, which Scott reluctantly does.  It’s not until he drops her back off at her apartment that it is revealed she is residing at a long-term mental health care facility.

Keeping his plans to head to Europe, Scott continues to prepare for his trip, though if one was to look at the universe’s signals, it looks like that may not happen.  The sale of his car falls through, he’s having issues obtaining his passport, he even sadly drops his ice cream on the ground.  But, looking at Paris as a fresh start Scott soldiers through, until Cindy gets herself kicked out of her residence.  Forced to look after his sister while awaiting a new placement, Scott brings her home and tries his best.  But with Cindy coming off the meds that anchor her to reality, their already fragile relationship begins to crumble and Scott is left with a moral dilemma of whether to fulfil his dreams, or try to help his sister.

Both Ben Platt and Lola Kirke turn out excellent performances here.  As Scott, Platt appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders combined with a look of desperation.  This is a character who feels as if his entire life has been swallowed by his sister’s illness.  The emotional evolution Scott undergoes in the film, from resentment to compassion, is notable.  Cindy’s journey is more obvious, from stability to manic as her mental illness takes over, yet Kirke never plays her as over the top.  Even in Cindy’s most chaotic moments, there is depth and subtlety to her performance that still feels respectful to the source material.

With Waverly creating such a personal portrait of mental illness, it certainly required a gentle and empathetic touch from the director.  It is obvious that Sattler understood the necessity of care here, right down to the decision to morph the final scenes of the film into footage of the cast and crew interacting with a real-life support group for those afflicted with schizophrenia and their family members.  It’s a touching moment that plays through the credits.  The first-hand experience means the filmmakers largely succeed in their mission to create a film that personalizes mental illness and its labels.  Cindy is not just a schizophrenic, she HAS schizophrenia.  She is also a sister.  A daughter.  A woman.  Detail in language does matter in trying to erase the stigma associated with such a serious disease.  Broken Diamonds helps facilitate this paradigm shift, and manages to portray mental illness with a respectful and healthy dose of compassion and humanity.

Broken Diamonds debuts on Cable VOD and theatres July 23rd before becoming available on demand August 23rd.

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