"Hypochondriac" confronts mental illness in raw, trippy, affecting, upsetting ways

Hypochondriac (2022)

Mental illness in horror movies is typically stigmatized—if you have multiple personality disorder, you’re dangerous—but struggling with one’s mental health is never lollipops and rainbows anyway. Claiming to be “based on a real breakdown,” “Hypochondriac” is framed as a personal story at its core with horror elements that never feel like tacked-on genre gimmicks. From writer-director Addison Heimann, this is a strong feature debut.

Zach Villa gives a fearlessly committed performance in the lead as a gay Hispanic 30-year-old. Formerly named Lindo, Will works as a high-end potter for a small business run by a vapid boss (Madeline Zima). He has support from Luke (Devon Graye), his boyfriend of eight months, even though Luke might not know the truth about Will’s upbringing. As soon as Will’s bipolar mother (Marlene Forte) comes out of the woodwork and begins leaving him paranoid voicemails and sending boxes full of old childhood materials, Will exhibits symptoms of something, like dizzy spells, brain fog, tingling in his arms, and hallucinations. When Will’s co-worker Sasha (Yumarie Morales) offers her grandmother’s cabin for Will and Luke to get away for a weekend, Will takes her up on it, but the symptoms worsen, especially when consuming some of Mom’s gifted shrooms. Could he be going down a dark, destructible path like his mother?

When “Hypochondriac” begins, we meet Will eighteen years earlier as a 12-year-old (played by Ian Inigo). His mother is clearly paranoid and not well, taking him away to a motel and nearly choking him to death. This is his last memory of her before Will’s apathetic father (Chris Doubek) sent her to an institution, and that trauma is repressed before it reverberates.  The film gets its title from a very relatable experience: Google diagnosis and the healthcare system. When Will takes multiple doctor visits, he first searches his symptoms while waiting, only to get answers that would raise anyone’s anxiety levels. Then when a nurse or doctor comes in, they downplay Will’s symptoms and chalk everything up to stress, as if they’re reading from a script and hitting certain doctor-to-patient beats.

“Hypochondriac” is clearly influenced by “Donnie Darko” (particularly because Will keeps seeing someone in a wolf costume that looks and even sometimes sounds like Frank the Bunny), but filmmaker Addison Heimann does have his own story to tell. As one can assume Will is an avatar for Heimann himself, Zach Villa makes the character likable and full of personality. Will has our sympathy every step of the way, even if he doesn’t communicate well or open up about his trauma with Luke. The relationship between Will and Luke is also written and played with unexpected authenticity, never feeling like the characters' passion for one another is softened.

Despite its hallucinatory freakouts, this is a frank and emotionally raw film. The trajectory is not uncharted, and a story like this can either end in tragedy or horror, both, or maybe neither. Heimann’s film looks great, from efficient scene transitions to a macabre nod to the pottery scene from “Ghost.” Upsetting but effective and affecting, “Hypochondriac” properly puts the viewer in the mindset of someone trying to keep it together. By doing so with actual humanity, it should hit a raw nerve for anyone who has ever wrestled with their mental health.

Grade: B

XYZ Films is releasing “Hypochondriac” (96 min.) in select theaters on July 29, 2022 and on demand and digital on August 4, 2022.