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by Susan Ryant

There’s a moment in Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks Alone with You when Bennett’s character Charlene becomes locked inside her apartment. Paranoia and loneliness have already set in, but given no options to escape on her own, she unleashes a guttural scream. Tears stain her cheeks, and reality grows even colder. Strangled by depression and anxiety, she begs for help 一 but no one hears. And even if they do, they simply don’t care.

The film, shot in the early days of the pandemic, is an emotionally-bulldozing experience. It’s a low-scale horror piece about one young woman’s devolution, ignited from a traumatic breakup, and the toll living with mental illness takes on your soul. At times, it’s an excruciating watch; as someone who has battled depression and anxiety for 19 years, I found myself witnessing my darkest days replaying on screen.

I’ve written frequently about mental illness in horror, a genre with a long, complicated history of wrestling with such dark themes as a way to both analyze it and vilify sufferers. The surreal turmoil of a madman informs much of the artistic approach in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) , while tortured characters in Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943) are crucified as totally hinged and pushed further to the fringes of society. Throughout the ensuing decades, the approach to mental health issues in film largely continued to equate illness with evil, from the negative impact of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 一 a 1983 study indicated that many who watched the film “developed a negative attitude toward people with mental health issues and the institutions/practices meant to help them” 一 to Session 9 (2001) .

It’s only been within the last 10 years that filmmakers have actively sought to deconstruct these erroneous beliefs and the stigma around mental illness in their work. The Babadook (2014) , The Haunting of Hill House (2018) , Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) , and The Night House (2021) , among several others, have ripped back the contaminated layers in a way that regrounds those afflicted as real human beings.

You can add Alone with You to the growing stack of thoughtful commentary. Bennett and Brooks dig their teeth into mental health and frame it within the context of a global pandemic, a period during which 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported struggling with depression or an anxiety disorder (up from one in 10 the year prior). Negative impacts on well-being grew more specific with many citing difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), and increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%). People have been pushed over the edge at a more frequent and terrifying rate. Symptoms in teens doubled with 25% experiencing depression and 20% struggling with anxiety. 

We’re in the midst of a full-blown mental health crisis 一 with new clear way out, much like Charlene. In the film, Charlene, a professional makeup artist, is preparing for the arrival of her girlfriend Simone, a photographer away on a work trip, on their one-year anniversary. She pops open a lush red wine and runs a hot bubble bath. Her life couldn’t be better.

But something dark and insidious creeps just below the surface. Mental illness, manifested through auditory and visual hallucinations, pushes against her from all four walls. Despair is not always suffocating, and sometimes, you don’t even notice it at first. It seeps through the cracks like weeds poking through concrete. When it blooms fully into view, it explodes across your life.

Charlene’s paranoia and intrusive thoughts converge in two video calls from her mother (played by Barbara Crampton), a religious zealot far more concerned about puritanical beliefs than her daughter’s life. Maybe it’s what she really thinks, as she berates Charlene for “what’s she’s become” 一 or its more likely depression’s grip on her perception of reality. On the worst days, your thoughts are never your own, and the delusions coerce you further to the ledge.

Bennett and Brooks piece together the story with a rich mental complexity. With Charlene navigating religious trauma and mental health searing red hot, the past shows up in fervently pastel glimpses, tortured nightmares that further contexualize the severe state in which she constantly lives. She revisits the past over and over and over again without ever really meaning to, and each time, the images grow more grotesque and surreal. Before too long, she even loses a grip on time, and her days and nights bleed one into the other.

Alone With You Review

There have been countless stretches in my life when I slept for days on end. Night felt too overwhelming, and days were too bright. Slumber brought the only peace I knew. Long before the pandemic, time meant nothing more than sticky sand in my fingertips. Over the last two years, that sand shrunk until it completely vanished, and my apartment walls pressed hard against my shoulders. I didn’t hear literal voices as Charlene does 一 a disembodied voice blubbers and cries for help through her vents 一 but the voices inside my head began to scream and rattle my brain.

Charlene turns more frantic as her connections to the outside world falter. Dropped calls with her mother and good friend are the least of her worries. When she calls 9-1-1, she pleads with the dispatcher to send help in breaking down her door, but the woman on the other line is listless and unconcerned. “Can you help me?!” Charlene screeches into the phone. “Help is on the way,” the woman responds, barely audible. 

Later, her drunk friend Thea presses her to come get hammered at the bar, but Charlene snaps back, “I need help. No one will come here and help me.” She’s in full crisis mode, and everything designed to help, from medical professionals to loved ones, fail her. She spirals out of control even more, dancing in the past with her thoughts and memories, and it soon becomes unbearable. The voice in her vent mocks her, shouting, “No one’s going to save you.”

“No one is going to care when you’re gone” is my most common intrusive thought. The number of friendships and relationships it has cost me is too many to count. Mental illness wrecks your life, leaving you scraps and jagged shards behind for those rare good days. When you are able to climb out and feel the sun again, the world has cataclysmically shifted. Nothing is the same as it once was, but you salvage what you can by confronting it and setting yourself free.

Alone With You Review

Charlene, whose story has been nothing but a severe spiral down, kills herself in the final moments. The film’s ending is certainly up for interpretation, as heartbreak and grief feed into the overarching narrative, but my reading firmly lands on the tragic. Charlene takes a butcher knife and slits her own throat. In her mind, a saran-wrapped version of herself has been tormenting her the entire time, forcing her to rip away the plastic to reveal the truth, swollen and mangled beneath. She is finally free like she always wanted to be.

I am fortunate to say I am free, as well 一 but I’m still here. I owe films like Alone with You and The Night House for literally saving my life. And a new antidepressant doesn’t hurt either. Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks’ visceral and honest exploration into mental health is a defining entry of 2022. While it speaks specifically to living through a pandemic, Alone with You carries with it all the chills and thrills you want in a ghost story, alongside a timeless poignancy that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.