The pervasiveness of mental illness throughout family lines is certainly a ripe subject for a documentary film, and Mariel Hemingway (granddaughter of author Ernest) is certainly a fascinating subject to follow. The extent to which her family has been torn apart by depression and suicide cannot be underplayed; we all know that Ernest died at his own hand, but there have been six other suicides in the Hemingway family, namely Mariel’s sister Margaux, while her other sister “Muffet” is left deeply debilitated by bipolar schizophrenia.
Having wrestled with similar suicidal feelings herself, Mariel teams with director Barbara Kopple and seeks to examine her family’s propensity for mental illness, hoping that it might leave her young daughters with some comforting thoughts for the future.
For all the worthiness of the subject, Running from Crazy proves a curiously meandering experience, skating over an introspective examination of the famous author’s death, while also failing to get to grips with the nature of suicide, and what beyond genetics could cause it to permeate an entire family tree. If the archive segments recorded by Margaux – who was intermittently working on a documentary about her own struggles with depression right up to her death – prove the most revealing aspect of the film, it’s a shame that Kopple didn’t choose to focus more on that.
Instead, too much is devoted to Mariel’s present-day excursions, riding out to the desert with her partner and having a petulant argument, before they go rock climbing. What thematic purpose do these scenes serve? At the end of the day, they don’t feel anything more than obnoxious skits you might see on an MTV reality TV show. There’s some woefully heavy-handed symbolism near the end of the film also; when a clip shows Margaux watching a matador killing a bull, she can’t help but remark that she feels like the bull.
Simply, there are too many errant threads and unexplored tangibles just left dangling; at one point, Mariel accuses her father of sexually abusing her sisters, though promptly abandons the point and never returns to it. This combined with the lack of depth in examining the broader family picture and some psychological opinion on the genetic nature of mental illness causes this film to feel maddeningly malnourished.
Though undeniably well-intentioned, Barbara Kopple’s documentary doesn’t seem particularly concerned with asking – or trying to answer – the big questions surrounding familial suicide trends.
Running from Crazy premieres at Sundance London on April 26th.
This article was first posted on April 25, 2013