I Think We're Alone Now (2010)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/28/08 10:22:56

"Children, behave!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASTIC FEST: In June 1988, Jeff Turner arrived at a California courthouse to greet teen pop idol Tiffany during her emancipated minor hearing. He brought with him a dozen flowers and a Japanese sword. Security arrested him, the press labeled him a stalker, and the incident would lead to a restraining order - all of which Turner says was just, you know, a big misunderstanding.

Filmmaker Sean Donnelly catches up with Turner for “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a documentary which delicately balances the offbeat humor and frightening seriousness of celebrity obsession. Jeff, now 50 and barely coping with Asperger’s syndrome, insists Tiffany is his closest friend, bound by psychic energy. The stalker accusations were just a part of a conspiracy by Tiffany’s handlers to keep them apart, you see, while her nude appearance in Playboy was intended as a secret message just to him, a coded confession of pure love.

Donnelly’s other subject is 35-year-old Kelly McCormick. Born intersex, Kelly spent her high school years as a big man on campus (perhaps, as suggested in one scene, because of bullying by a father who rejected her desire to live as a girl), but now lives freely as a woman. Like Jeff, Kelly insists Tiffany is the love of her life, her true romantic destiny. It matters not that they’ve never met, or that Kelly has never even seen Tiffany in person. To Kelly, Tiffany is a soul mate, and to suggest otherwise is to endure a screaming fit of the brokenhearted. The mere act of explaining how deeply she loves Tiffany (“to the bone marrow”) leaves her trembling and frantic.

It doesn’t take long for the film to make its point: these people are lonely, confused, ill, downright scary - and always utterly human. Donnelly succeeds in painting a portrait that’s more touching than you’d expect, while never out-and-out apologizing for his subjects. The movie finds the heart of these two lost souls, yet refuses to allow their sad sack attitudes and mental illness to pardon genuinely unacceptable behavior. Bravely, the filmmaker allows his narrative to drift in the grey areas of this subject matter, which creates a seeming paradox: by revealing a more complete picture, we wind up understanding less than he would had he limited the range, sticking to, say, pure mockery, or pure demonization, or pure apology.

It’s easy to laugh at Jeff’s more outlandish claims (a favorite: Emperor Hirohito, on behalf of the Japanese nation, made a public statement praising Jeff’s attempt to give Tiffany that samurai sword) and nutjob beliefs (he’s a stern believer in radionics, has built several devices to concentrate his psychic energy toward Tiffany, and insists another female celebrity - no fair telling who - is a time traveler who’s been influencing his romantic fortunes for decades). Our initial view of this guy is that he’s a quack, a total basket case, no different than the patients in the loony bin who swear they’re Napoleon. But the more we see him in action, the more we meet those who deal with him on a daily basis, the more we realize that he’s not as far gone as we might think, which makes this whole Tiffany-posed-nude-just-for-me stuff not nearly as clear cut as we’d like our stalker freaks to be.

And while that’s why we might come to like him - or, more appropriately, pity him - it’s also what makes him so terrifying. He’s got an entire level of way-out-there all to himself. When he discusses his studies on stalker and sexual deviant psychology, how can we possibly respond? The irony is apparently lost on him: “Look, I’ve read about stalkers, so I know I’m not one myself!” he seems to say, with a smile that chills.

Kelly’s story, meanwhile, sits forever under a cloud of sorrow. In one interview, she admits to the sadness of a life lived without love. To her, the unrequited love for Tiffany is an extreme example of every failed non-relationship she’s had. Assuming the stories of her past are true (unlike Jeff’s wild tales, there’s little reason to doubt Kelly’s teenage history, even though her grip on reality is equally shaky), she’s still recovering from an abusive childhood and the pain of keeping her intersex identity closeted for most of her life. Perhaps she uses Tiffany to excuse away every problem in her life: well of course she’s never had a relationship, because Tiffany is waiting for her.

(Kelly also dips into that chilling “I’m no stalker” mental haze. At one point, she uses her own twisted brand of logic to explain that since stalkers don’t truly love their targets the way she loves Tiffany, she’s not a stalker.)

When Jeff and Kelly unite to share a hotel room and attend a Tiffany concert and autograph signing, we’re pretty sure Donnelly overstepped his bounds and arranged for the meeting. (It’s never explained how they found each other.) This questionable set-up diminishes the film’s hands-off, make-no-judgments approach to its subjects, although the outcome creates some legitimate tension, namely: how will Kelly handle finally meeting her idol?

Also keeping the film locked in ambiguity is Donnelly’s apparent refusal to interview Tiffany herself, or anyone associated with her. When we see footage of Jeff cozying up to the singer at conventions, posing for pictures, showering her with presents, we squirm. It’s obvious that Tiffany and her handlers are uncomfortable with his presence, yet they still allow it. Why? How did Jeff go from sword-carrying threat to mere fanboy nuisance? Donnelly won’t explain. In his defense, this maneuver keeps the film in the realm of Jeff’s point of view; to him, the expiration of restraining orders don’t matter, which means there’s no need to discuss it at all.

This sort of approach can be frustrating at times, but it can also be highly rewarding. Donnelly’s decision to hunt for the humanity in these people, to avoid around the expected let’s-gawk-at-the-crazies shortcuts, adds a welcome depth to the project, offering compassion for its subjects without diminishing the creep factor. How often do you get to see heartbreak and eeriness at the same time?

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