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A heartfelt but misguided drama about a brother and sister trying to reconnect after their father's death, which unfortunately treats her mental illness as a gimmick.
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I’m a big fan of Lola Kirke, a young actress whose name you probably don’t know. She’s worked in indies and smaller films over the past few years, building a solid resume without ever breaking into stardom.
I’m not sure if that’s something she’ll ever achieve, mostly because she doesn’t seem to want it.
Kirke has what the old Hollywood moguls called “presence” — when she’s onscreen, she’s always the one you’re watching. She’s comfortable in her own skin and isn’t afraid to show her characters’ flaws, inside or out.
She’s got an interesting mix of vulnerability and stubbornness, often playing young women who aren’t very sure of themselves but find a reason to trust their own authenticity. Check out “Mistress America,” in which Kirke was terrific opposite Greta Gerwig.
I was less enthralled with her newest turn, “Broken Diamonds,” out this week on VOD. She plays Cindy, a woman with serious mental illness, in her case schizophrenia. But the movie’s not really about her, instead focusing on Cindy’s brother Scott, played by Ben Platte.
He’s a waiter who’s been saving up to move to Paris so he can write the next great novel, but has to put his plans on hold when their father dies and Cindy becomes his responsibility. After being kicked out of her living facility, moves in with Scott and immediately sets about sabotaging his life, setting his passport on fire, denting up the door of the car he’s trying to sell and mortifying him at every turn in public.
Cindy craves independence but also tends to go off her medications and experience hallucinations and delusions. She wants to get a job but is a disaster in interviews, getting fixated on a noise or insisting she can’t be somewhere at 8 a.m. because “I have yoga!” (She actually quit yoga class months ago.)
After bumping into an old high school friend (Debs Howard) who is now a television star, Cindy insists on accepting the party invitation that was only offered as a joke, dressing in a garish outfit that’s halfway between little girl and prostitute. Then she runs into her old boyfriend and things really get uncomfortable.
I was turned off by the story at the conceptual level. Director Peter Sattler (“Camp X-Ray”) and screenwriter Steve Waverly (a rookie to feature films) have created something that is very heartfelt and well-meaning but still boils down to “adventures with my crazy sister.”
Cindy is not really investigated as a person, but is instead more of a set of problems and challenges that Ben has to overcome. We don’t even get to hear any specifics on her condition until rather late in the movie. Even then we don’t experience these episodes as Cindy does, but how Scott has to grapple with them.
Platt and Kirke have solid screen chemistry together, and we actually believe they could be brother and sister. She was the outgoing one, the girl everyone liked, the star of every high school theater production. Scott was the kid who got ignored, his accomplishments and good behavior overlooked as Cindy became increasing erratic, eventually resulting in her diagnosis, the dissolution of their parents’ marriage and the long slide begun to their current situation.
Yvette Nicole Brown plays Cookie, their stepmother, who is cheery but also somewhat distant and out of their loop. She’s content to let Cindy be Scott’s problem. Catherine Lough Haggquist plays Cindy’s therapist, who by default becomes Scott’s, too, offering a helping hand without seeming condescending.
Kirke still makes things interesting. We’re able to see glimpses past the irrational behavior to the person who’s struggled her whole life with discerning what’s real and what’s not, and the toll that burden has placed on her. Scott thinks she’s blissfully unaware of the hurt she’s caused him, but it turns out she’s keeping careful tabs of her misdeeds.
Scott is less interesting, especially when Cindy is not around. He’s sort of a prototypical cinematic beta male type, a guy who’s not very sure of himself but wants to put up a front of competence and confidence. He’s not very good at it. It’s never really explored exactly why he needs to go to Paris to write — or how tips from waiting tables will last him more than a month or two there.
“Broken Diamonds” eventually finds its emotional center, but only at the very end when Scott and Cindy have a meaningful exchange about who they are and how they feel about each other. It’s not easy to be little brother of a sister who gets all the attention.
But it’s no cakewalk dealing with mental illness, either — or, it seems, making a movie where it doesn’t feel like it’s used as a gimmick.