In our era, many individuals either suffer from a form of neurological imbalance, have friends and/or family members burdened with it on some level, or both. Of the many terrifying implications here, one of the most fundamental is the hereditary nature of psychopathology: If an individual's mother, father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, or uncles were plagued by mental illness, his or her odds of being afflicted are exponentially greater. This has given actress Mariel Hemingway legitimate cause for concern: Not only did her grandfather, literary giant Ernest "Papa" Hemingway, commit suicide, but so did her older sister, supermodel/actress Margaux Hemingway; her great-grandfather, Clarence Hemingway; her great aunt, Ursula Jepson; and her great uncle, Leicester Hemingway. In addition to this, Mariel and Margaux's older sister, Joan "Muffet" Hemingway, suffers from emotional instability and has spent periods of her life in mental institutions.
Given all of these calamities, Mariel herself runs an abnormally high risk for depression and self-destructive tendencies. Barbara Kopple's brave, fascinating documentary Running From Crazy examines the Hemingways' history vis-á-vis Mariel's concerns and the lifestyle changes that she has implemented as a result.
In terms of conception and execution, the picture is brilliant. Kopple's most ingenious decision involves using Margaux as a window into the family dysfunction. We learn that she wasn't merely emotionally fragile, but that she understood the contagion of her grandfather's mental instability: In 1983, she began an unfinished and unreleased documentary on Ernest's life in an attempt to better grasp the method behind his madness. Kopple interpolates large fragments of this work into her own documentary, and by recontextualizing this crudely shot and edited footage within a broader thematic framework, she's able to give it meaning and dimension that are likely beyond anything Margaux dreamed of. For instance, we see a mesmerizing video that Margaux had filmed of herself at a Spanish bullfight, tears streaming down her face as she watches a bull gored and stabbed to death. Thanks to the commentary that Kopple places around these images, we sense that Margaux could relate to that torture on an intimate level -- both in terms of her own emotional struggles and her grandfather's.
This is truly chilling for many reasons, not least of all because years later Mariel decided to take the same journey on which Margaux had embarked. But a difference exists between them, and it may simply be that Mariel possesses greater self-awareness, wisdom, and perception. As she affirms on camera at one point, Margaux simply wasn't very intelligent. Even if her intuitions regarding her grandfather suggest some subconscious push toward empathy and personal well-being, she apparently lacked the level of introspection necessary for adequate self-protection -- the level of insight, in fact, that Mariel has.
Mariel occupies the movie's present-day time frame, and Kopple uses her on-camera observations and glimpses of her daily life to offset the tragedy of the family backstory and provide an optimistic prognosis, both for her and for viewers in a similar position. In placing Mariel and her loved ones in the center of the frame, Kopple etches out a credible portrait of a woman who is fierce, headstrong, and radiantly sane. If the Hemingway legacy is a whirlpool, threatening to pull each new family member down towards calamity, it becomes clear that Mariel has spent most of her adult life swimming against the current, and will doubtless be doing so until the day that she dies. It would be difficult to overstate the level of indomitable bravery that she exhibits in terms of discussing her family history. Among other things, she suggests that her father, Jack Hemingway, may have sexually abused Joan and Margaux, and explicitly limns the bitterness and resentment that Margaux felt towards her positive critical notices in motion pictures. These are not capricious and gratuitous reveals: They suggest that Mariel is both willing to confront her family's past and has fully come to terms with it. As we witness the elements that she has incorporated into her life -- holism, a balanced lifestyle, a strong support network in her boyfriend and two daughters, and constant physical exertion -- it becomes clear to us that she's saving herself from a dire end.
Kopple has indicated that she made this documentary primarily as a source of inspiration for the millions of people in Mariel's position, and the movie's financing (much of it provided by the philanthropic Oprah Winfrey) also points to its humanitarian aims. Herein lies the film's greatest asset and its one key weakness. As an upshot, we do feel a sense of overwhelming vindication in Mariel's ability to rise above her circumstances, to prove to each of us that one can personally surmount a legacy of familial mental illness. However, that isn't quite enough: There are times when one does wish that Kopple and co. would travel one step further in the last 30 minutes and actually delineate the steps that those suffering from these issues (or family members of such individuals) could take to protect themselves and others. It's often too didactic or pedantic for a film to end with such concrete advice, but it wouldn't be out of place here because Kopple builds such a strong case for the need of this in the preceding hour.
It's a curious omission, but not a detrimental one -- and in the final analysis, it can be forgiven. The movie's success can be measured not merely by its beautiful construction and conception, but by the wellspring of courage, determination, and hope that it imparts to the audience.