Editorials

Darious Britt’s Unsound — filming the pain and love of caring for a parent with schizoaffective disorder

Unsound doesn’t have to tell you that it’s based on a true story. Never have I seen something so real. Never has a film captured the complex, contradictory feelings only a caretaker for a parent with mental health issues could understand. Darious Britt’s independent feature is a personal story of love, fear, frustration, and powerlessness that couldn’t possibly have been informed by anything but lived experience. I have spent my legal career working with people suffering from extreme poverty, and my wife is a psychologist working with much the same population group. I have never met Darious or his mother, represented as Reginald and Darolyn Colbert, but I have met a lot of people like them. Unsound is informed by both the empathy and frustrations that come along with trying to help someone with lifelong mental health problems.

UNSOUND | Based on a True Story

Darious Britt is an independent filmmaker from Arizona, who has made it a focus of his career to teach low budget techniques to other artists. His Youtube page [link] is an unmatched resource for learning indie film production, and I highly recommend checking out his Patreon if you want to support him directly. After Unsound and its behind the scenes documentary, you will have no doubts about his quality as a filmmaker. There are so many choices and sequences in Unsound that communicate effortlessly how well he understands the language and techniques underlying visual storytelling. The first shot with his character’s mother isolated, trapped, and obscured perfectly captures her place in a society that doesn’t know how to contend with a woman with lifelong schizoaffective disorder. As a quick note, “paranoid schizophrenic” is not a term you’ll hear anymore. A sequence later on at a Volkswagen rally tells a dense, wordless story in the space of only a few minutes. The film’s finale, capturing a full mental breakdown, is visually distinct and chaotically edited; its contrast to the clean design of the rest of the film feels every bit like the frightening, disjointed experience that is a psychotic breakdown.

Unsound takes its viewers through one of what are clearly many cycles common to individuals with schizoaffective disorder. First of all, these issues are illnesses, not personal failings. His mother is not a bad person, she is someone with a sickness, but that sickness leads her to do frightening, sometimes dangerous things. They will very often do or threaten to do something harmful to themselves or others, resulting in temporary hospitalization. These hospitalizations are short, and usually end as soon as the individual is stable enough to no longer pose a threat. Then they get released, with little to no ongoing assistance. Their mental health disorders and often chaotic lives make staying stable and medicated a difficult prospect, and before long they regress, falling back on dangerous habits.

The system in place to handle these situations is actually several systems that don’t communicate or work well together. Hospitals, ongoing therapy, and local courts all have tools that should be able to address some of the problems, but never quickly or permanently. Unsound displays Darious attempting to navigate these systems, trying desperately to get a collection of educated, mostly white professionals in sterile courtrooms or medical offices to understand the impossible, sometimes terrifying reality that he tries to manage when his mother experiences a psychotic episode. Having worked with these systems myself, I understand the frustration. With so much power and so much confidence in their authority, the courts and hospitals, the police and crisis responders, can be helpless to make meaningful change. Too often all they do is frustrate, taking time and energy away from people who are only seeking health.

How I Made My FIRST Movie | Making UNSOUND!

 

Unsound is powerful because it understands the conflicting feelings that Reginald must have experienced in his life. He loves his mother, but he’s afraid of her. He wants to take care of her, but he also wants to be able to live his own life. Every moment between them is tinged with these contradictions, these interruptions in what should be a normal mother/child relationship. Toreenee Wolf’s Darolyn Colbert is immaculately acted. Vacillating between composed, chaotic, coherent and incomprehensible, she is an undiscovered gem that I pray to see more of. Her relationship with her son is both loving and wary. Every situation between them comes with both their love for one another and the steps they have to take around one another to manage the mental health issues.

Reginald spends much of the movie trying to get care for Darolyn against her will. At first his behavior might seem controlling or manipulative, but you see how his mother’s episodes create problems that are steadily ruining his life. His attempts to hold down a job or a place to live are under constant threat from her erratic behavior. He has been dealing with this for a long time, potentially his entire life, and with systems that can only temporarily and inadequately address the underlying cause, he doesn’t know what else to do. Despite Darolyn’s issues, she is savvy and intelligent as well, knowing just what to say and do in her lucid moments to stymie his work at keeping her stable. It gives you a sense of frustration and paranoia that is at home to both characters. The one moment of simple familial care, when Darolyn is teasing her son for not eating enough, comes just after he tries to have her sign HIPAA paperwork so he can speak to her doctor. Was she really caring for him, or was she just trying to get him off the subject? Are the two mutually exclusive? What must it be like to live like this, to always know you’re in the midst of a game with no winning, no hope, and the looming question of what could go wrong next?

Looming also is the absence of Reginald’s father. He is mentioned only briefly, and the audience never gets to know for sure what happened. Did he die, leaving Reginald and Darolyn adrift to work through these issues, or did he leave, unable to keep up with a situation any longer? Were things better when he was around, or have they always been this bad? We never find out, but we do feel the influence of that unnamed man, in many indirect ways. Reginald’s one reference to his father is a lesson: drive a Volkswagen. That lesson gives Reginald something that is falling apart, but with the right work can be made to keep going. Both like and unlike his mother, the car is the one thing that Reginald can control. Even with no air conditioning and ragged seats, the car is the one place his devotion can improve things, as he slowly rehabilitates the car and keeps it for years. The work inspires him to use his own limited time, money, and relationships to make a documentary about VW enthusiasts. Those resources and the documentary are imperiled by his living situation, and we are left not knowing, at the end, how either of them will reckon with the future.

Unsound is a lifetime’s worth of substance packed into 94 minutes. It’s love and pain all wrapped together in a package that knows the intricacies and uselessness of America’s systems better than anything I have come across. Far more than a dive into the kind of artful misery that Oscar-bait dramas have told you to expect, this movie is funny, frightening, tender and cynical all at the same time. It manages to be these things because it is ultimately informed by a truth and empathy that can only come from lived experience. I highly recommend you check it out, and keep your eye on Darious Britt’s projects in the future.

Senior Tabletop Editor | [email protected]

John Farrell is an attorney working to create affordable housing, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/ or follow him on Bluesky @johnofhearts

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