Documentary Review: Finding meaning, shedding the self, “Chasing the Present”

There are fatal flaws with any movie about a journey of “self-discovery,” be it “Eat Pray Love” or “Razor’s Edge” or documentaries on “losing the ego” in a traveling spiritual quest (“The Last Shaman,” “The Look of Silence”). It’s the unmistakable stench of privilege that underwrites our tour guide, the indulged egotism of the “quest.”

James Sebastiano Jr. is an American-born recovering addict and Balinese vegetarian restaurateur/hotelier who took off on a circumnavigating search for an end to the anxieties that have both scarred and driven his life.

And good on him for looking for answers, “reasons” for the way he was and the fears that dog him still.

Sebastiano commissioned a documentary filmmaker, Mark Waters (“The Salt Trail”), to follow and collect gorgeous travel footage of his experiences and document his interviews for “Chasing the Present.”

He talked to gurus, teachers, philosophers and therapists, dropping tales of his vast travels into his conversations with them. He sampled ayahuasca in the Amazon and meditated in a monastery in India.

“It’s not so hard to go to India for a month,” Sebastiano muses at one point, “not working,” shedding anxiety, thinking, accessing a famous Brazilian-born guru (Sri Prem Baba), questioning experts, say, the comic and comic actor turned philosopher Russell Brand.

And the understandable reaction of the vast majority of an anxious, struggling humanity — even some of the target audience of such a film — might be, “Oh REALLY?”

Chatting with his father, James Sr., at a New York diner, we smirk at Dad’s side-eye, wince a little at Dad’s “I can fix your anxiety…a little right hand or left hook...You will be HEALED!”

It doesn’t utterly devalue “Chasing the Present” to be a bit put-off by our navel-gazing host. As diffuse as the messaging is here, about “ego” and “The I,” “consumerism” and global “suffering” connected to it, the need to disconnect from the “self” and acknowledge “the existential emptiness” the way most of us are living, it’s fascinating to take a step back and examine that as the film is offloading opinions, teachings and theories. Many of them.

“The ego must be crystallized to be dismantled,” counsels Sri Prem Baba.

Teacher Joseph Goldstein (virtually everyone interviewed is male) advises Sebastiano and us to look at the rage and unhappiness in the world (the film was finished pre-pandemic, but in the middle of the world’s latest flirtation with nationalism and fascism) and “instead of seeing it as craziness, see it as suffering.”

And Brand (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Arthur”), whose life and career have undergone a serious change of direction since he started musing over spirituality, consumerism and politics, advises, “Stare too long in a mirror and you’ll freak yourself out.”

Sebastiano has to find a way to “be present” for his anxiety and learn that “suffering’s an illusion.”

Maybe he has. But I have to say his scanty back-story — addicted to coke and other drugs in his early teens, moving to Amsterdam after college in Florida (U. of Miami? Just guessing, dude.), “flatlining,” restarting his life in Bali — just made me grit my teeth at how indulged he was, and how much better the movie would have been had he checked his ego, pitched the film to Brand and joined him and Waters for the same journey.

Because all the other interviewees from the self-help/self-actualization Meditation Industrial Complex can seem self-serving. The most interesting and famous guy to go down this rabbit hole, the one most given to calling out poseurs, including himself, is Brand.

Without him, this is just talking heads and pretty pictures and one guy’s “problem” being solved by limitless travel and resources.

MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: James Sebastiano Jr., Russell Brand, Gary Weber, Sharon Salzberg, Rupert Spira, Joseph Goldstein, Jose Lopez Sanchez

Credits: Directed by Mark Waters. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:33

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