Writer-director-star Alex Heller’s debut feature is a fictive spin on the very crisis she experienced at age 19, when she dropped out of college and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Not the weightiest screen treatment of a serious mental health issue, this drolly self-deprecating portrayal nonetheless achieves a degree of poignancy and depth within a distinctive sensibility you might call Midwestern Sardonic. After a fest run, it’s opening in limited theaters and on demand March 3.
Clemence Miller (Heller) screams “trainwreck” from the moment we first see her dragging a garbage bag across campus, haranguing everyone whose path she crosses. She then turns that alienating energy on her terrified dorm roommate (Taylor Marie Blim), who says, “You’re ruining my college experience!” The roomie has, it turns out, already informed Clem’s mother that she has spiraled into “hoarding, stealing, paranoia and shrieking.” Ergo Sherri (J. Smith-Cameron) bursts through the door, dragging her eldest child back to suburban Illinois not a moment too soon.
A psychiatrist (Waltrudis Buck) quickly determines that Clem is bipolar — a condition that often manifests in early adulthood — ordering a pill regimen led by a whole lotta lithium to balance her alternating episodes of mania and depression. But that cocktail requires experimental adjustments, as the side effects can be just as troubling as her symptoms. Meanwhile, our brusque, confrontative, filter-free heroine gets a mixed welcome back from her family, who shunt their grown daughter into the basement, her old bedroom having already been repurposed as a home office.
Dad Don (Steve Buscemi) is a local schoolteacher whose doggedly cheerful demeanor thinly cloaks an exhausted dismay. Craft store proprietress Sherri is grimly purposeful in rising to this latest domestic challenge, but doesn’t bring infinite patience to the table — it turns out she’s got significant problems of her own to deal with. Clem’s siblings are hardly thrilled by her return: For nervous academic drudge Carlin (Emily Robinson), big sis’s distracting drama can only lower her SAT scores, while teen jock Neil (Wyatt Oleff) tries to ignore her presence entirely.
Nonetheless, Clem does make an effort … more or less. She attends scheduled sessions with a therapist (Jon Hudson Odom) and gets a part-time job at a thrift store, attempting to make friends with initially resistant co-worker Beth (Kyanna Simone). She dutifully lays off unprescribed drugs and alcohol, at least until reconnecting with erstwhile partying partner Ashik (Rajeev Jacob). Her fall off the wagon climaxes in the closest thing “The Year Between” has to a major set-piece: a crashed teenage house shindig where much of the cast witnesses Clem (her self-shaved head temporarily covered in a long blonde wig) making an impressive spectacle of herself.
Neither as actor nor filmmaker does Heller make her on-screen alter ego easy to like, as Clem is distinctly empathy-challenged. As others repeatedly point out, she capable of making almost anything “all about me,” not excluding a relative’s cancer diagnosis. But she’s also funny in a deadpan, steamrolling, girl-bro way (complete with frequent use of “dude”), and the movie never feels cruel in its treatment of her or anyone else. Her coping mechanisms are what they are — and so are everyone else’s in dealing with her.
Every character here has an eccentric individuality nicely delineated in performances on down the line. They’re all amusing, yet free of caricature, and the prickly dynamics between them feel tart without being cynical. If “The Year Between” risks feeling a little hasty and underdeveloped — particularly in seeing Clem to the light at the end of her tunnel — it’s mostly because we could easily spend more time with these people than the running time allows.
Stylistically, too, Heller’s debut is full of ideas that are quirky without being too showy, lest they overshadow subject matter that’s taken seriously despite the surface snark. That extends from the diverse visual strategies in Jason Chiu’s cinematography to the breezy narrative shorthand provided by editor Harrison Atkins’ several montage sequences. There’s savvy input from production designers Carrie Allen and Chris Garcia, while the soundtrack furthers an air of off-kilter humor via both Kotomi’s original score and music supervisor Linda Perry’s survey of mostly female artists from Olivia Newton-John to viral YouTube diva Poppy (plus her own late rock outfit 4 Non Blondes).
The result is a useful mix of the pseudo-random and finely honed that refuses to hand-wring over Clem’s travails, yet simultaneously makes an upbeat case for her emerging from them intact — even if she’ll never exactly be Miss Congeniality.