Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 What The Fest.
Going through puberty can be frightening. Newly sprouted pubic hair, weird dreams and weird smells, and a rapidly changing body are strange, off-putting things. But what if you were also growing scales and turning into a carnivorous monster? In Lisa Brühlmann’s Swiss feature Blue My Mind, a young girl undergoes this radical physical transformation, just as she’s navigating a new high school and falling in with new friends who are into recreational drugs.
What’s the genre?
It’s horror and fantasy, mixed to a degree that borders on magical realism. Brühlmann brings in body horror and mutilation on a level rivaling Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but she mixes it with teen angst and existentialism. Brühlmann does a great job of balancing this magical, aquatic world within the realistic themes of adolescence and early feminism.
What’s it about?
The film opens in modern Switzerland, in a high school where the cool kids, led by Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen), smoke cigarettes, shoplift, and do sexy dances by the school entrance, all while staying tightly within their own clan. Mia (Luna Wedler) is the new girl at school, which makes her vulnerable, even though she’s gorgeous enough to fit in with the popular kids. By being eager to please, learning to sexy dance, and changing her wardrobe, Mia earns an invitation to join Gianna’s gang. But in her strenuous efforts to fit in, Mia gets caught in dangerous situations. She’s nearly apprehended by a security guard at a mall for shoplifting, and because the other girls tease her for still being a virgin, she tries to lose her virginity to a lonely man from the internet who resembles Sen. Ted Cruz.
To add to her sense of isolation, Mia’s parents are completely clueless about what’s going on. But they do know that Mia is acting strangely and has made some questionable friends. Throughout the film, the adults are no help. They interrogate Mia, they ban her from a school field trip to an amusement park, and when Mia’s transformation edges toward completion, they’re away at a relative’s wedding.
What’s it really about?
In real life and fiction alike, teen angst — and, on a more extreme level, mental illness — can be opaque to people who aren’t experiencing them. Both can be hard to communicate to an outsider, and both contribute to people shutting themselves down and isolating themselves instead of seeking help. As Mia transforms into a fish-creature, her growing anxiety and alienation from friends and family have a tangible source, but she can’t tell anyone about it because she feels what’s happening to her has no scientific explanation, and it’s too gross to look at. The fish-creature analogy suggests a form of mental discomfort that onlookers might dismiss as growing pains, but which could be a more serious sign of hidden mental and emotional sickness. Brühlmann doesn’t pin down how deep Mia’s problems go, which leaves the metaphor open-ended enough to apply to a range of situations.
At the same time, Blue My Mind is about feminism. The film premiered in Switzerland in 2017, before #MeToo spread across Hollywood, then globally. But its themes resonate with the movement: the film portrays Mia’s male sexual partners as creepy, self-serving menaces who only steal her agency. Still, Mia isn’t powerless against them. As she changes, she’s also growing in physical strength, although she’s emotionally approaching a breakdown. She shoves people to the ground, and she picks and chooses her encounters and who she’ll be closest to.
Blue My Mind also resonates with queer themes. Mia’s panic at the precipice of her change is evocative of trans preteens who want to start hormone regimens before they undergo puberty and face irrevocable changes to their bodies. She tearfully rejects every new physical loss: webbing forming between her toes, her feet merging together. The film hints at a queer romance that’s never confirmed: Mia and Gianna fall into bed together after a party and hug each other tightly, comforting each other more effectively than any guy they might perfunctorily “bounce.” (That’s Swiss-German slang for sex, which comes across despite any language barrier, given how many times it’s repeated in the film.)
These are timely issues, and Blue My Mind compacts them all into less than two hours with efficient storytelling and subtle allusion. Instead of spelling out what’s going through Mia’s mind, Brühlmann turns the camera on Wedler’s heartbroken gaze and the shadows falling on her, while a glimmer of light shines through the window. Brühlmann’s ambiguous, evocative images document rather than judge. The precocious teen parties and wild shoplifting trips are never deemed terrible, although for these characters, sex feels meaningless, and mental agony is nearly too overwhelming to face. The most Blue My Mind does to tack a thesis onto the film is in capturing Mia’s complete apathy toward men and her unbridled obsession with her body, rivaled only by her desire to be Gianna’s friend.
Is it good?
Enjoying the film requires enjoying teen angst and body horror since there isn’t a moment without them. But the beauty of Blue My Mind is its cinematography. Brühlmann evokes the world you see when you’re blinking, the flutter of eyelashes and submergence of light into shadow, and the way it can look like the crashing of waves in the ocean. This cinematographic trick comes up repeatedly, to add a confusing, hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the film, and to represent the call of the ocean.
That metaphor of eyelashes and waves mirrors Brühlmann’s greater metaphor at play, which is the similarities between mermaids and girls on the brink of adulthood. Like mermaids, young girls are sometimes relentlessly, even predatorily, chased by men. Mythical creatures and young women can both be unsure what place they have in the world they’re starting to explore. But both also have unique fortitude. For all its sad scenes, Blue My Mind is no tragedy, and Mia’s not a victim. As she turns, she grows more desperate and able to adapt to her circumstances, and it’s empowering to watch.
What should it be rated?
Given all the (male) nudity and monstrous body horror, this film earns a solid R.
How can I actually watch it?
Blue My Mind had an international release in 2017 and won the Swiss Film Awards for best screenplay, actress, and fiction film. It’s currently touring film festivals. An American release is still pending.