THE YEAR BETWEEN – Review by Nadine Whitney

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The Year Between by writer/director/star Alex Heller has echoes of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture but without the upper middle-class NYC privilege of Dunham’s milieu. Clemence Miller (Alex Heller) has come home unexpectedly, and to an extent, unwelcomed to her family’s house in suburban Illinois after experiencing a mental breakdown in college. Alex is very quickly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sets about trying to cope with being back in the stifling ‘burbs of strip malls and people she wishes she didn’t remember from high school, all while trying to deal with an increasingly difficult schedule of medications and side effects.

We begin with seeing Alex wandering the ovals and halls of her college. She’s talking to herself, yelling at random people, and dragging a bin bag filled with stolen clothes. She arrives in her dorm room where she berates her beleaguered roomie by accusing her of using her lip-gloss. Clemence is bullying the timid student and blaming her for the mess that is their shared space (Clemence’s side is chaos, the other side looks like it could be a Pinterest shot). Clemence’s mother, Sherri (J. Smith-Cameron) turns up after the roommate has called her to complain about her daughter’s erratic behaviour, and college at least for now, is over for Clemence.

Moving back into her parent’s house is no easy adjustment. To begin with Clemence is in a dingy basement, her room has been converted into office space for her father, Don (Steve Buscemi). Clemence’s siblings actively resent her being there with her sister Carlin (Emily Robinson) desperately trying to study for her ACT exams, and her brother Kevin (Wyatt Oleff) just wanting to be left alone to chill, play sports and just be a teen guy. Clemence is a big personality and a difficult one. She takes up so much space even when she doesn’t mean to. Her brain just doesn’t quit, and it certainly doesn’t know how to play nice.

Mental illness is a tricky subject to represent because it’s often used as a quirk (see Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook) or an implied threat (see quite literally thousands of films about “crazy” violent people). Bipolar disorder is refreshingly shown by Heller as being something difficult to deal with but also numbingly mundane. Turning up to appointments with her psychiatrist who is trying to find the right combinations of medication for her or talking to a psychologist who can’t give her a straight answer. It’s boring, it’s exhausting, it’s frustrating for Clemence and everyone around her.

Heller doesn’t skimp on showing the audience the side effects of medication. Clemence either oversleeps or stays up all night. She is putting on weight from the medication, her hair is falling out. Even with her deeply supportive Dad, and her mostly supportive Mom, she’s alone and frustrated. Dr. Lismeon (Waltrudis Buck), whom she calls “that German woman” doesn’t sugar-coat what Clemence’s life will be like. It will always be a struggle to stick to the routine, there will always be side-effects. She can learn to live with the illness, but it will never go away.

Clemence is brittle and sometimes brutal with the people around her but also with herself. When she notices too much of her hair is falling out she shaves her head and with her cobbled together clothing (whatever that can be found, regardless who it belongs to) she exudes “crazy person” energy. Even when trying to get a job at a discount store she purposefully fights with Beth (Kyanna Simone) the assistant manager. Clemence is radically honest about how shitty she is. Eventually she gets the job and she and high-schooler, Beth begin a tenuous friendship with Clemence realising that Beth is working hard to be the best socially accepted version of herself.

Heller shows how easy it is to fall off the medication wagon. A cringe-inducing scene where a local drug-dealer, Ashik (Rajeev Jacob) tries to seduce her in his mother’s basement leads Clemence to having to face the sexual dysfunction the medication causes. She decides to drink and take Adderall so she can at least feel something. It isn’t long before she’s no longer sticking to her regime and her behaviour spirals further out of control culminating in a messy party scene where Clemence’s worlds collide in a hilarious fashion.

The Year Between is a sly comedy that deals with a topic that few people want to be honest about. It’s a family drama that culminates in Clemence finding that she isn’t the center of the world and that the seemingly perfect Carlin is struggling with her grades. Don is feeling the weight of inadequacy of being a professional teacher to high schoolers who have no interest in him or whatever he’s trying to impart to them, he’s also trying to keep the family from ripping each other to pieces. Sherri has her own significant battle to deal with and perhaps that’s why she’s been impatient with Clemence and her constant mood swings.

Alex Heller gives a performance filled with pathos and sarcasm as Clemence tries to negotiate living with a broken brain in a place she hates – to be fair it’s unlikely Clemence would find a place she didn’t hate. J. Smith-Cameron is outstanding as Sherri who moves between domineering and gentle. Steve Buscemi is simply wonderful as Don who just does his best to keep everyone afloat (as a side note you can see Buscemi and Smith-Cameron play a different kind of married couple in the 2018 film Nancy starring Andrea Risborough). Emily Robinson once again proves why she’s such an effective young actor in managing to slip into the skin of a teen role that is layered and ultimately vulnerable.

For a debut film The Year Between is a gem, but beyond the fact it is Heller’s first feature, the movie stands on its own as an accomplished piece about how infuriating it can be to be mentally ill. The Year Between is witty, authentic, and ultimately kind to almost every character in Clemence’s orbit, including Clemence herself. Clemence may not feel like she has any dignity and often acts in a manner that actively undermines whatever dignity she may have, but Heller skilfully sees that sometimes just doing your best to make it through is good enough and that in that there is grace and, if you’re lucky, love.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.