Before I start this review, I should warn readers that I’m going to have to reveal a few spoilers. That being said, if you choose not to read on, know that this movie is amazing but not for the easily disturbed. If you don’t mind one or two revelations, read on. I promise I don’t spoil much, just a bit to be able to review it thoroughly.
In the mainstream film industry, and often in the films heralded by big award institutions (Oscars/Golden Globes), movies about the ravages of mental illness have some sort of silver lining. They are usually a call to triumph of the human spirit in the face of a debilitating disease that threatens to rob those afflicted with their very humanity and sense of self.
And yet, anybody who has known somebody with a true mental illness knows that there is very rarely a silver lining. Hollywood loves to tackle pop-culturally trending disorders like Autism and Parkinsons Disease as tragically poetic. It would be taking a true risk to instead center a movie on something a lot less marketable, let’s say, hereditary schizophrenia paired with one hell of an eating disorder. This is the subject matter for Excess Flesh, a daring and brutal film by director Patrick Kennelly.
Almost the entire movie takes place in the apartment where two women live. Jill, played with terrifying commitment by Bethany Orr, is our central character. Jill is mentally unwell, and that’s saying it lightly. She’s broken in a way that can’t be fixed without the help of a slew of doctors, medications, and years of psychotherapy. Perhaps if somebody had noticed symptoms earlier in her youth, she could have had a normal life, but at the point we find Jill, certain patterns of behavior have been allowed to flourish for a little too long. Jill finds comfort in food, and not just in binge eating, she ritualizes food for pleasure and also for a weird atonement of her unhappy existence. A person like Jill is powerless in the face of her disease(s) without professional help. She has no job, no motivation, and no social skills. While painfully aware of her failures, she is not aware that she’s sick. It makes matters worse, that Jennifer, her roommate, frequently and cruelly points out her faults.
Jennifer, played with fine talent by Mary Loveless, is just as messed up as Jill, with one very big difference. Jennifer is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She is a bully, and Jill is her favorite go-to psychological punching bag. Although Jennifer’s compulsive promiscuity and cat-&-mouse abuse of Jill is definitely not healthy for either girl, you learn (SPOILER) that these are coping mechanisms left behind from an insanely abusive ex-husband. This isn’t fully revealed until the final act of the movie, through a disturbing dream sequence in Jill’s mind. Now, I usually dislike dream sequences, but this one was purposeful and, while a little drawn out, offered a deep insight as to the compassion that Jill has for Jennifer. That compassion holds strong in its own weird way, until, of course, she finally snaps. And, holy molars, when Jill snaps, she snaps hard!
The movie provides a masterful and unflinching view of the worst possible scenario and environment for a person as mentally crippled as Jill. Every scene is fascinating, yet hard to watch. Kennelly truly captures a desperate woman, in the grips of bulimia and blooming schizophrenia, as she spirals out of control. Even the sounds of eating are allowed to shine through in the sound design, further punctuating the disgusting and visceral nature of bulimia. I had to push my pizza away after a particularly yucky and heartbreaking scene with some mac & cheese.
The only weak moments of the movie are the scenes with the neighbor. I hate to say this, but I think these fall flat because there is a combination of poorly written dialogue and a bad performance working against each other. They threw off the story a bit and I had to take them with a grain of salt.
I really appreciated the subtle techniques that Kennelly uses to create atmosphere and to develop the characters. For example, esthetically, the film shares color schemes typical of rehabilitation centers and hospitals, further punctuating the sense of madness and being trapped in Jill’s deepening psychosis. Also, there is no actual medical diagnosis revealed in the movie. Kennelly lets symptoms play out in the characters, with some blatantly obvious and some more nuanced. He fully captures the complexity of how an undiagnosed underlying disease like schizophrenia can mask itself through a more familiar disorder like bulimia and other more recognizable patterns of behavior, such as OCD rituals.
The film touches on fashion and body image issues, as Jennifer is a rail-thin, photogenic fashion model, and Jill’s eating disorder earns her a soft and doughy body. I really didn’t really get a feel of a major social message here. It served more as backstory, demonstrating another source of psychological pressure for poor Jill. She’s actually quite thin for a girl who polishes off dozens of microwaveable mac & cheese containers, and this is another problem with the movie. Even though it’s shown to us that Jill does purge after some of her binges, she doesn’t seem to do it consistently. She really should be more overweight. The performance by Orr was so good that you forgive this big detail, however, it does disconnect you at times when you see how thin the actress actually looks. I think that the filmmakers were aware of this and use a lot of unflattering camera cheats to get around it, but once you get a full body shot of Jill, it’s obvious she isn’t a plump girl. Out of shape? Yes. Chubby? No way!
Excess Flesh is definitely not for everybody and I think I shall say the genre it falls into is psych-horror. It falls in line with movies like The Piano Teacher, Bug, and In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) as a deep and terrifying analysis of mental disorders. You will look away, or at least want to (more than once), but if you hang on, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing and visceral cinematic experience!
Thank you, Kennelly for taking on such a difficult film and for doing it so well! Also, congratulations to Bethany Orr and Mary Loveless for pulling off some complex characters!
Thank you for reading!
Diva Del Mar