TIFF22 REVIEW: Fixation [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: 2022 (USA)
    Director(s): Mercedes Bryce Morgan
    Writer(s): William Day Frank / William Day Frank, Katrina Kudlick & Mercedes Bryce Morgan (story)

The past is not the present.

What did Dora (Maddie Hasson) do all those years ago? That’s the question she’s asking herself as she sits straightjacketed in a hospital she doesn’t remember entering. What did her family do to her to earn that ire? That’s the question her doctors (Genesis Rodriguez‘s Dr. Melanie and Stephen McHattie‘s Dr. Clark) hope to answer for her through an invasively experimental psychiatric evaluation. While the two questions ultimately go together considering her actions were a response to that abuse, separating them should always be undertaken with extreme delicacy. Dora’s overall wellbeing should remain paramount regardless of how effective the therapy could prove by pushing the envelope beyond its limits since clarity can sometimes hurt as much as it can heal. Unless, of course, something else is going on.

It all stems from a memory caught on camera of a young Dora dancing in their home’s “trophy room” when someone attempts to enter uninvited. Is it Mom? Is it her brother Griffin (Atticus Mitchell)? Is it someone else? We don’t know because she can’t remember. Or, better yet, she doesn’t want to remember. Who would considering what we assume happened once that unknown assailant broke in? We can only guess that whatever it was, she had to prove even more monstrous to escape. Does anyone therefore wonder if perhaps Dora didn’t do what she’d accused of doing? No. There is perhaps wiggle room insofar as whether she had a choice. It might have been self-defense. It might have been a psychotic break. Should a jury release her?

Rather than lay out the facts and let a courtroom choose, however, director Mercedes Bryce Morgan‘s Fixation (written by William Day Frank from a story by Morgan and Katrina Kudlick) wants Dora to decide for herself. It makes sense on the surface. If the doctors can unlock her trauma and allow her to recognize what happened, they can better understand what diagnosis and expert opinion they’ll deliver. Where things go astray is how they execute their plan. You see, Dr. Clark has a methodical six-step process that he assures works without a need for medication. He forces his patients to confront their pasts by shifting their reality through an elaborate system of reenactments—like a personal House of Horrors theme park attraction. The truth can no longer hide.

The result is a disorienting roller coaster ride through Dora’s subconscious. Mind and matter converge until she’s lost inside a maze of her own making. Except she didn’t make it. The people populating these vignettes are familiar both from the hospital and her life like a warped Wizard of Oz merging faces and names until the discrepancies fade to let the pain take over. Dora knows something’s wrong. That’s not her brother. That’s not her mother. And sometimes it seems like they’re ill-equipped to deal with how dark and sinister things have become too. Are they actors? Hallucinations? Is Dora awake or asleep? At one point Dr. Clark enters the frame like a rock idol basking in the warmth of acolytes while her sanity hangs by a thread.

Morgan’s attention to detail is exquisite. Cast and crew quarantined themselves for months to work and act on custom built sets inside a six-story abandoned hospital. Every door leads somewhere new. Every room holds a duality between real and imagined, expected and unexpected. It all depends on where Dora is when she wakes from her latest violent episode because neither she nor us can believe anything. Maybe the room looks right, but a false wall leads into an outdoor memory she’s spent years repressing. Or maybe the next one leads into a courtroom of grotesque characters in masks like it was ripped out of Pink Floyd: The Wall. And all the while we hear The Drifts’ cover of Cults’ “Always Forever” triggering Dora’s fight or flight to eleven.

So, we must ask ourselves: when does the therapy become just as bad as the abuse? Dora has endured unspeakable injury courtesy of a gaslighting family that painted her as the aggressor until she had no choice but to believe it. She’s the one who was mean for not “playing” with her brother. She’s the one who made her mother drink because her dancing reminded her of a future she could no longer pursue. Dora’s mind is so twisted that she’s had to forget her own actions to justify theirs since the alternative would cripple the illusion that her childhood sibling dynamic was one constructed upon love. And now Dr. Clark is doing the same. Torturing her to satisfy his own means regardless of the impact.

What’s the alternative, though? Dora is faced with a choice between prison and Dr. Clark’s care. One would seem worse than the other on simple conditioning alone, but clarity might prove the opposite true if its so-called reprieve is predicated on a different sort of incarceration. Because while the entirety of Fixation focuses on the fact that Dora is in a state of fluidity when it comes to whether her feet are firmly planted to the ground, what if Dr. Clark’s own sanity has been lost? It doesn’t matter that his methods can “fix” Dora’s mind if the price paid is to just break it again. Freedom isn’t being allowed to run the asylum. It’s to leave it far behind. Is trading one manipulation for another worth it?

It’s a question that leads down a rabbit hole of violence wherein a false sense of salvation is really shown to be another chain holding you down. The layers go much deeper than you might expect at the start once the artifice is torn away bit by bit since Dora’s awakening can’t help but bleed into the minds of those who already thought they were awake. The whole is thus about control from start to finish. Predatorial control. It’s about reducing Dora into a cog in a machine built to give joy to someone else. So, maybe she should thank her doctor after all. By refocusing her memories to acknowledge her victimization, she may also acknowledge it never ended. Because one wall isn’t enough. They must all fall.

courtesy of TIFF

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