Movie Review: “The Last Shaman” takes us into the Ayahuasca healing fad

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Depression is a serious illness that can hit anybody. Even a rich Massachusetts teen who travels into the Amazon seeking a cure through the “ancient tribal secret” fad du jour, Ayahuasca.

So there’s no mocking James Freeman’s personal journey, his search through a sea of Amazonian hustlers, one of whom might be just the shaman he’s been looking for, the person who can help him cleanse his body of “bad energy,” feed him the  entheogenic brew, put him through ceremonies filled with smoke, trances and being buried alive. No mocking, no matter how tempting mockery might be.

But here’s what is missing from the indulged and indulgent documentary about James’s vision quest. There’s not one medical expert, not related to him, willing to endorse any of what follows or transpires as his “cure” as James moves from self-described suicidal teen to seemingly-adjusted young man.

Did the psychoactive drink cooked up from the caapi vine make him self-aware, forgiving and happy? Or was it simply the trip, getting away from family, school, expectations, pressures and the competition that the Real World was hurling at him?

The actor-turned-director Rez Degan asks him, perhaps on behalf of the audience, the stupidest question in the midst of all this.

“Am I happy? I’m SICK, dude,” the kid re-assures him.

Freeman tumbled into depression while at an exclusive prep school, and gives perhaps the most succinct definition of clinical depression ever.

“You hate yourself. And you hate yourself for hating so much.”

He looked forward to nothing, dumped his girlfriend (“Kate”) and gave thanks that “You can buy guns in Wal-Mart in America.” James wanted to end it all.

Then he picked up on the celebrity-endorsed Ayahuasca treatment, spent his parents’ money on the trip and endured many months and burned through untold clots of cash weeding through incompetent, predatory or less indulgent “healers” until he found “The Last Shaman.” The ones named in the film, in no particular order, are Ron, Pepe and Guillermo.

Degan — Was he hired by James to document “my story?” — ably imitates drug trip experiences with the visuals and editing. But he also captures a rich, sick boy detoxing from therapeutic drugs and a corrosive-to-some culture, a process that covers many months. James lives among the less materialistic and evolves. He also gets caught up in the drama of the materialism that he and celebrities like Tori Amos, Paul Simon, Sting and actor Penn Badgley have brought to the corner of Amazonia where this drug and its attendant rituals are indulged.

It’s not “The Razor’s Edge,” though there are hints of this “Eat, Pray Love” journey of self-discovery attached to James’s search for a cure to what ails him. Something appears to have helped him, given him perspective, if nothing else. The malaise he professed fades away.

But you don’t actually have to sample “the worst thing I’ve ever tasted,” as James describes the brew, to smell the BS in here.

1half-star

The Razor’s Edge”

MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, alternative medicine including hallucinogens, smoking.

Cast: James Freeman, Pepe, Ron, Guillermo, Kate

Credits: Directed by Rez Degan. An Abramorama release.

Running time: 1:18

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