Movie Review: “Fixation,” a quintessential Toronto Film Fest entry

The whiff of fall sends a movie critic into reveries of Toronto, where the annual film festival (TIFF) is underway again. It’s a lovely city that hosts a first rate festival. Is the shoe museum still open?

A movie like Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s “Fixation” triggers other memories, of the oddities one finds in that festival’s eclectic-by-design/serious and yet eccentric-by season-of-the-year programming.

Fall is when the weirder works of Canadians Guy Maddin and Atom Egoyan make their appearance, movies previewed pre-fall at TIFF. Many’s the early morning when I gave myself over to the onanistic excesses of whatever Lars von Trier or his ilk was trotting out this year, staring at my watch as I wondered where this was going and how much longer it would go on.

“Fixation” is a psychological thriller and murder mystery by genre. What it turns out to be is a bizarre burlesque of mental illness, memory and psychotherapy.

Hell, it even has Stephen McHattie, who played a self-serious but comically unethical psychotherapist on “Seinfeld,” as a possibly ingenious, probably demented head-shrinker.

Remember the simplistic dream interpretations of Hitchcock’s “Spellbound?” It’s a bit like that, with a touch of “Truman Show” and hints of Von Trier, et al in its elaborate fever-dream cure.

Maddie Hasson of “Malignant” and TV’s “Mr. Mercedes” stars as Dora, a young patient at a peculiarly designed, oddly-staffed mental hospital. She’s there under court order, we gather. She’s under the care of Dr. Clark (McHattie) and his colleague, who likes to go by “Doctor Melanie” (Genesis Rodriguez).

Something about the questions Dr. Melanie asks, the tests Dr. Melanie administers and the peculiar, severe hair and makeup (think Tim Burton’s mates) she exhibits makes one wonder what Dr. Mel is all about.

Something awful happened between Dora and her brother. Just mentioning the name “Griffin” triggers her. We hear he was a taxidermist, and the mind reels at what might have transpired thanks to that detail.

Dora? She seems rational and patient right up to the moment she isn’t. She wants her freedom, can’t figure out how long she’s been there and is starting to have trouble distinguishing her reality from whatever the hell her mind takes her.

But the solution may be simple, Doctor Melanie insists. Just stick to Dr. Clark’s program. “Step One: Submission,” Step Two: Immersion with the Past,” “Step Three: Integration with the Present,” and so on.

“He’s chosen you,” she’s assured. Only she isn’t “assured.” We figure that out when she bites a nurse’s ear off to get out.

Morgan and her co-writers put Dora through a memory play of her life — recreating her past, confronting her present, reckoning with what happened and what she’s accused of.

It’s a vamp of what real therapy looks and feels like.

Hasson plays a reluctant participant in this “play acting” cure, befuddled and outraged, crushed and defiant. She’s an arresting presence, and the sparring scenes with Rodriguez and later McHattie have the feel of something with heft, even if the substance isn’t there to back that up.

With extreme close-ups, creative “stage” lighting that takes us through sets that look like sets (on purpose), Morgan’s made a flashy, technically-interesting but shallow pirouette through paranoia.

It’s got a certain promise to it, with the viewer and Maddie straining to determine which threats are real, which are in her head and which are thrown at her to put them in her head. But once the third act “explaining” begins, we and our heroine realize just how far in advance we saw all this coming even as we sneak another glance at our timepieces, wondering when and if this will ever end.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence, profanity

Cast: Maddie Hasson, Genesis Rodriguez, Atticus Mitchell, Gita Miller and Stephen McHattie

Credits: Directed by Mercedes Bryce Morgan, scripted by William Day, Mercedes Bryce Morgan and Katrina Kudlick. (No Distributor Yet).

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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