Judge Gordon Sullivan would rather live drama than realism.
"…the story of one man's descent into Alzheimer's."
Realism is a tough nut to crack in either literature or film. Fundamentally, film and literature aren't reality, so any attempts to be more realistic are fraught with difficulties, not least of which that reality is awfully boring much of the time. There are generally two ways an author (or auteur) can overcome the difficulties inherent in realism: superior technical prowess, or the presentation of a slice of reality that most of the audience doesn't have access to. Schism, from indie director John C. Lyons strives mightily to bring realism to a deeply personal story of the ravages of Alzheimer's. Although he gets kudos for trying, Schism can't succeed on either technical merits or by offering us a new perspective on the ravaging disease.
Schism is the story of Neil Woodard, who falls down the stairs as the film opens. His family place him in an assisted living facility during his rehabilitation period. Initially, he's convinced that his recovery will be quick and soon enough he'll be back in his own home again. He settles into life at the home, making friends and engaging in his physical therapy. As time goes on, his family visits less and less often, and there's talk of selling his house. Slowly it dawns on Neil that he may never leave the home. Neil also starts seeing things, and sinister events around the home suggest that there may be something going on behind the home's placid exterior.
Schism seriously suffers from a lack of story. Neil falls down, Neil goes to the home, Neil meets people/gets used to the home/he starts to hallucinate/he succumbs to Alzheimer's—that's pretty much it. Sure there's some interaction with the home's largely indifferent staff and increasingly bizarre patients, but on the plot level not much happens. A complex plot isn't necessarily a part of realistic films, but the problem with Schism is that it offers nothing new to the dialogue on Alzheimer's, elder care, or the experience of becoming increasingly marginalized in family life. I'm willing to be that a significant portion of the audience for Schism has had to deal with a friend or family member who has gotten too old to take care of him or herself, or had dementia or Alzheimer's. If not, there have been countless portraits of the disease and the general situation of the elderly in film and television. If you're at all familiar with this kind of situation, either from personal experience or having seen at least one character with dementia in a film, then Schism will be superfluous.
The film might have overcome its lack of narrative distinction if it had technical artistry on its side. If it couldn't be a new film about Alzheimer's then it might have been the best film about Alzheimer's. Sadly, though, the film's low-budget origins keep it from being as engrossing as the story requires. For the most part the acting is incredibly stiff, with numerous performances sounding like they're being read from cue cards. Lyons obviously knows his way around a camera, with several scenes creating some interesting tension, but the overall look of the film is somewhat dingy and off-putting. This may serve the sense atmosphere, but I found it off-putting.
It's not all bad, though: Terrence Smith as Neil Woodard seems to grow into the character as the film progresses. Lyons also shows great promise with his use of editing and cinematography. I got the sense that given a story with some narrative drive that he could have effectively moved the story along. The press release for the film makes it seem like the distribution company is aiming for the educational market, and, in that context, Schism will likely work well. It certainly presents a no-frills portrait of a many slowly losing his mind, even if those frills will be sorely missed by most film fans.
Maintaining the educational approach, this DVD is chock full of extras. The first disc presents the film in a decent 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that looks about as good as a low-budget movie of this type can with a solid stereo track for audio with English subtitles (a great plus for a film of this type). The second disc includes deleted/extended scenes, a highlight reel from festival Q&As, a collection of behind-the-scenes footage, and outtakes. These extras reveal the personal nature of the project for Lyons (before production his father suffered from Alzheimer's), how the film got made on such a low budget, and his dedication to filming in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Schism is a realistic portrayal of one man's journey into Alzheimer's dementia, but it's not a particularly effective film. There is no story to speak of, and the acting and other technical irregularities are distracting enough to make what little narrative the film presents even more difficult to get interested in. Those who want a compelling portrait of the plight of the elderly should probably watch something like Bubba Ho-tep. Although Schism is disappointing, director John C. Lyons shows enough promise that I hope he continues to make films.
Schism is guilty of being too real.
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