Chained for Life

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/24/19 23:04:57

"Trying to be the anti-'Freaks'."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You can feel "Chained for Life" struggling with the legacy of "Freaks" and similar films throughout, not to mention the more general difficulty of physical differences, and maybe ultimately not sure what else to do but acknowledge the struggle. The filmmakers are determined not to present a simple fairy tale or something which minimizes the reality of living with an appearance that makes people stare, and as a result they wind up going around in circles a bit, making a movie about making a movie and talking about talking about disfigurement and beauty.

Within the movie, "Chained for Life" is the first American feature by a young European director (Charlie Korsmo), and Mabel (Jess Weixler) its star. They're shooting in an empty section of an old mental hospital, which in the film will be home to conjoined twins, bearded ladies, and the like, most played by people who have done this sort of work before. Mabel's co-star, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), is relatively new at this, and while his face may be distorted by neurofibromatosis, he's a charming, if shy, man; he and Mabel find themselves chatting and rehearsing together. It's a tentative sort of thing that could become friendship, depending on the circumstances.

The easiest story to tell would probably have Rosenthal a bitter man when introduced, but writer/director Aaron Schimberg instead opts to focus on his nervousness to start, letting the audience meet the guy rather than the issue, and by the same token not defining him by what "normal" people think of him. It's a tack that works in large part because Michael Pearson has a firm handle on the sort of charisma he needs to project here, a combination of natural charm and practiced confidence. Early on, one might be struck by the wit in how he tells Mabel she's got a look of pity on her face - it plays as banter - but it's also a kind of probe. The speech about why he'd like to be a waiter might also be something that's been refined over time, but Pearson doesn't make it feel rote. He's good enough to that I hope he can find some roles that aren't so much about his appearance, if that's the direction he wants to take.

It's a bit easier to sideline Jess Weixler's contribution in comparison, especially as Schimberg's script doesn't try to create a huge false equivalence of things being equally difficult for Mabel because people also make assumptions about her based upon her appearance. That is, of course, the general arc of Mabel's side of the story, and Weixler does a nice job of playing Mabel's insecurity without necessarily making her a full-fledged neurotic. Weixler plays well off Pearson, and without her actually being dull, Mabel is able to function as a baseline for how other people treat him, from the nurses at the hospital who hang out with the "freaks" after-hours, to the fast-talking guy underlining how nice he's being, to the director who sometimes seems to treat them as abstractions.

That's kind of where the movie gets most interesting, and may become more so once it's out in the wild and people are doing interviews or making special features for the disc, as the extras who are staying at the hospital overnight start using the equipment to make their own movie, and though it's entertaining and makes its point about how what they make on their own is obviously very different from what "Herr Director" is making about folks like them, you kind of can't help but wonder, while watching, whether these bits are improvised or also the work of Schimberg. Authenticity isn't necessarily everything - the point is made, after all - but it's tough to say what that makes Chained for Life. Is it cleverly constructed to turn its distance into a weapon, in that rather than smugly looking down on the film-within-the-film as exploitative, one must acknowledge one's own complicity, or is it a well-meaning movie that can't quite avoid being the thing it criticizes, no matter how it tries?

Schimberg is certainly trying his hardest to do the right thing here, but it's apparently as hard on film as it is in real life. "Treat others as you would like to be treated" is as simple as it is occasionally non-instinctive, and the way the film stalls, detours into fantasy and reference, or gets wrapped up in its specific situation probably reflects a sort of truth more than we might like. It's fortunate to have Pearson and Weixler, in that case, to make something concrete out of the platitudes it might otherwise dissolve into.

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