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The Sensitives is an intimate look at people allergic to modern life

Tribeca Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Multiple chemical and electromagnetic sensitivity — an inexplicable allergy to electromagnetic fields or synthetic chemicals — is a strange and poorly understood medical condition. But it’s been explored several times in film and television, including the 1995 drama Safe, the TV series Better Call Saul, and a segment of Werner Herzog’s internet documentary Lo and Behold.

Director Drew Xanthopoulos’ film The Sensitives, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, is a more meditative take on the subject. It follows five people with MCS or electromagnetic sensitivity, which makes it difficult or impossible to live around cellphones, electric appliances, artificial scents and cleaning agents, or other items that are taken for granted as part of modern society. Instead of an overview of their condition, Xanthopoulos assembles snapshots of their lives, particularly their relationships with non-sensitive people.

What’s the genre?

Character-focused slice-of-life documentary.

What’s it about?

Five people who live with a combination of chemical and electrical sensitivities. There’s Joe, a grandfather who spends most of his time behind a homemade Faraday shield in his suburban neighborhood. Another subject, Karen, has moved to an isolated shack with her twin sons Sam and Nathan, who have grown up in a plastic-wrapped clean room. And activist Susie Molloy is working to raise awareness of chemical and electrical sensitivity as a disability, while helping fellow sensitives.

What’s it really about?

How people deal with circumstances that are not only beyond their control, but beyond their understanding.

Is it good?

Xanthopoulos approaches the subject of being essentially allergic to modernity in a way that’s refreshingly non-symbolic. In addition to eschewing hard-nosed medical analysis, the film treads a line between acknowledging both its subjects’ very real symptoms and the frustration of friends and family who see them retreat into isolation.

Joe and Karen both have family members who have helped them cut ties with the outside world. Joe’s wife upends her own life to turn their house into a safe zone, and Karen’s mother brings her daughter and grandchildren supplies, until her death midway through the film.

Both women acknowledge that they’re in an impossible position. If sensitivity is an allergic reaction, they’re offering much-needed support. If, as some research suggests, it’s a psychosomatic condition, they’re enabling a life that’s miserable for all of them. This is especially true for Sam and Nathan, whose condition has degenerated over decades, to the point that they’re virtually unable to leave their small shared room.

The practical and hyper-competent Susan, though, provides both a counter-narrative and a spot of hope. Where Joe and Karen have disconnected from the world as much as possible, Molloy wants to remove barriers that keep her and others from participating in it. She’s developed complex routines for doing things most people take for granted: going to the pharmacy, for example, requires calling it up and asking for the dates of the last carpet cleaning and pesticide treatments.

The Sensitives can’t offer a real resolution to any of these people’s stories, because there simply isn’t one. But their narrative arcs are compellingly shaped while still seeming honest, natural, and intimate.

What should it be rated?

PG or PG-13, but with a lot of emotionally difficult material.

How can I watch it?

After this Tribeca premiere, it would be a great pickup for a streaming platform like Netflix. Otherwise, it seems likely to get a video-on-demand release.