REVIEW: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 40 minutes | Release Date: 2017 (USA)
Director(s): Frank Stiefel

“We are creativity itself”

It’s not easy to depict mental illness with honest clarity or art’s cathartic influence as therapy, but Frank Stiefel‘s look at Mindy Alper entitled Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 does both. It helps that Mindy is an open, self-aware subject despite crippling anxieties. She leads his camera through her struggles as represented by surreal drawings created throughout her fifty-six years—a roadmap traversing her life’s extreme highs and lows. The work is reminiscent of Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, each imperfect line lending the pictures emotion and character without compromising authenticity. They tell a story of psychological and physical abuse, role models who looked past her ailments at the imagination and creativity within, and a woman unafraid to acknowledge the pain she’ll never fully conquer.

Stiefel treats Alper with sensitivity, allowing her to talk about her past and present without prompts or coaching. He sets up the camera and lets her speak, splicing in frames of her drawings (static or subtly animated) that embody the truth of her experience better than words ever could. Mindy explains her long-prevalent phobias concerning skin and “cooties,” the nervous breakdown that took her voice for ten years, and the elective shock therapy that damaged her brain while also very possibly saving her life. She does it with a deliberate cadence as she acquires the right words to say, her phrases broken down to their parts for contextual relevance if not semantic perfection. One memory leads to another until the reality of her childhood reveals its scarring complexities.

The candor at work is the film’s strongest attribute because Mindy refuses to sacrifice her wellbeing to shine someone else in a rosier light. She can go from saying she speaks to her mother three times a day to matter-of-factly positing that the woman didn’t have the maternal instincts to protect her when they were needed the most. Damning evidence arises which may imply Mindy’s father was more abusive than she willfully admits, but she firmly holds to her belief that he wouldn’t have crossed this specific line despite crossing so many others. Her expressive recollections lend her words a transparency that can only be learned after decades of therapy and acceptance. All the chaos she bottled inside during her tumultuous youth now flowing freely into her art.

Whether line drawing, painting, or papier-mâché, Mindy exposes her soul. With the help of teachers and doctors she holds as dear to her heart as family, her depression and psychosis has been suppressed to the point of functioning in arenas that had scared her to the point of silence. Where many might have used her success as a means to declare mental illness solvable, however, Stiefel lets Alper stand as an example of its process. Her story normalizes what so many—her father included—refuse to believe as anything other than avoidable weakness. We see her backslide into dark thoughts, struggle through anxiety, and come out with a smile that reveals the hope of better days. We often take for granted how profound it is to simply be heard.

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