Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 84 minutes. Next screenings: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 9 a.m., Temple Theatre, Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 30, 9 p.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City; Thursday, Jan. 31, 9:15 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre, Salt Lake City; Friday, Feb. 1, 6 p.m., Redstone Cinema 7, Park City.
By turns harrowing and heartwarming, director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg’s documentary “Bedlam” exposes deep flaws in the way America handles the mentally ill — mixing history, anecdote and personal survival story.
Rosenberg, himself a psychiatrist, takes cameras inside the psychiatric ER of Los Angeles County / USC Hospital, which is where many of southern California’s most intractable mentally ill patients land. The movie introduces us to several patients, dealing with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other problems. Rosenberg then traces these patients over a couple years of recovery, relapse and renewal.
Interspersed with these personal stories is information about the history of mental treatment, from the asylums of the 19th century to the “breakthrough” of prefrontal lobotomy (now considered barbaric, the technique earned its inventor the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1949). The turning point was John F. Kennedy’s drive to eliminate the snake pit of the asylum, in favor of local community treatment centers — which had the benefit of letting the federal government fob off the problem to state government budgets, with predictably disastrous results.
Rosenberg also tells the story of his sister Merle, who suffered from schizophrenia that medicine of that age could not treat. It’s Merle’s plight that led Rosenberg to become a psychiatrist, and later a filmmaker dedicated to telling stories to break the stigma of mental illness.
Rosenberg pours everything he knows and feels about the crisis in America’s mental health system into “Bedlam,” which is both its strength and its weakness. The stories of individual patients and of Rosenberg’s sister are compelling, and the historical background fascinating. But piling them all into a single movie is too much of a good thing. Rosenberg has a lot to say that needs to be heard, and he should take more time, and more movies, to say it.