So single-mindedly focused on its climactic moment that its director neglects any sense of pacing or middle-act storytelling.
Elizabeth Blue is a film so single-mindedly focused on its climactic moment that its director, Vincent Sabella, neglects any sense of pacing or middle-act storytelling. Fortunately, it hits its marks and finishes spectacularly. This is not to say that the film is successful; it is a slog to get through the plodding moments between the first scene and the final one.
The film opens with a skillful, frenetic tracking shot through several of the corridors and rooms of a mental hospital before introducing the film’s protagonist, Elizabeth (Anna Schafer). The film then abandons such photography; lively long takes characterized by a cluttered mise-en-scéne are replaced with short, static shots with few objects or people in the frame. The cinematography is analogous to the plot, which quickly becomes both tedious and vacuous.
Elizabeth is released from the mental institute in the opening act and returns to live in her apartment, joined by her just-moved-in, just-proposed fiancé, Grant (Ryan Vincent). Avoid staring too hard at the feasibility of such a set-up because certainly it seems a stretch that a diagnosed schizophrenic would be allowed by doctors and loved ones to combine two lifestyle changes of such enormous stress and disruption into a single moment.
The rest of the film traces the relationship between Elizabeth and Grant. It reveals the details of Elizabeth’s life, follows her to her regular sessions with her psychiatrist and shows her nascent wedding planning. Grant comes across as both rather boring and not very supportive. Elizabeth mostly stares at herself in mirrors or desperately survives hallucinations urging her to suicide, unless she is arguing with or about her mother, at whose feet she lays the blame for her mental illness. Grant jogs, pities his partner and generally bumbles about.
Not much happens in Elizabeth Blue and not in the artful, philosophically-rich way that nothing happens in a film such as The Turin Horse. Nothing happens here and there is no subtext. Elizabeth persists, Grant continues to be a barely-passable partner and the film steadily moves ever closer to its mic-drop ending.
A generous take on this interminable narrative structure is that Sabella, a debutant director, is making a statement about the perniciousness of mental illness, but that seems a stretch. Elizabeth Blue is neither subtle nor novel on the topic and any thesis it posits regarding the nature of mental health is, at best, banal. The film could be credited with showing that mental illness is a serious and under-appreciated societal problem, but that is not the sort of message epiphanies are made of. Frankly, with the magic trick third act plot twist, Sabella could be accused of manipulating a narrative about mental illness simply to get audiences to gasp at the brilliance of his film’s final reveal. Mental illness becomes the medium through which he can wink at everyone and congratulate himself for his own cleverness.
Regardless of whether Sabella is performing what he sees as a vital social service—speaking on behalf of the mentally ill—or is distastefully marshalling schizophrenia solely to make a Sixth Sense-like mindbender, the middle act of Elizabeth Blue is lifeless and boring, and for no better reason than to stretch out the runtime so this one-trick pony of a film can be feature length. Sabella is the slacker sophomore science major taking the university-required humanities survey course and pumping his essays full of nonsensical filler to reach the eight-page minimum length requirement.
The ending of Elizabeth Blue is not quite sophomoric, but it is also not worth all the tedious waiting around to get on with it. Plus, Sabella overplays his hand just a bit and telegraphs the twist about five minutes before the intended big reveal. In the closing scenes, the energetic, tracking camera returns and instantly reinvigorates the film, suggesting that perhaps Sabella should rely more on technical prowess than screenwriting shenanigans in his next work.