'A Light Beneath Their Feet': Film Review

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8:54 AM PDT 5/27/2016 by Frank Scheck

Taryn Manning plays a single mother suffering from bipolar disorder in Valerie Weiss’ sophomore feature.

The emotional cost of serving as caregiver to someone suffering from mental illness is movingly dramatized in cliché-free fashion in Valerie Weiss’ (Losing Control) sophomore feature. Featuring standout performances by Taryn Manning as a woman with bipolar disorder and Madison Davenport as her teenage daughter grappling with whether or not to take flight, A Light Beneath Their Feet will strike particular chords among the many who have had similar personal experiences. The pic, which won the Audience Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is currently being released in select cities.

Manning (Orange Is the New Black) plays Gloria, whose mental illness contributed to the end of her marriage. Now she works in the cafeteria of her daughter Beth’s (Davenport) Evanston, Ill., high school, struggling to keep her emotions in check even while longing to go off her much-needed medications which she takes only because of her daughter.

Asked why she wants to forego the meds that enable her to lead a relatively normal life, Gloria replies, “So I can feel like myself.”

Beth finds herself torn about where to go to college in a few months. Her mother desperately wants her to stay at home and go to Northwestern. But she longs to escape her caregiving role and go to college in Southern California because of the area’s “predictable weather patterns” (it’s not hard to see the dual meanings in that explanation). At the same time, she begins a romantic relationship with an anti-social fellow student (Carter Jenkins) with a troubled past, much to the anger of his jilted girlfriend (Maddie Hasson).

Screenwriter Moira McMahon Leeper perhaps injects a few too many plot elements into the mix, including Gloria’s unwittingly and disastrously going off her meds due to another character’s machinations. And the romance between the two emotionally scarred teens, which includes a tender prom scene, feels all too familiar. The film’s strength lies in its honest and realistic portrayal of mental illness and the toll it exacts on those in its sufferer’s orbit.

Director Weiss and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldon use subtle visual techniques to convey the main characters’ fragile emotional states and deep interconnectedness. But the technical aspects pale in comparison to the superb performances by the underplaying Manning, who makes Gloria likable even at her most desperately needy, and Davenport, who beautifully conveys Beth’s contradictory impulses to sacrifice her own needs to care for her mother or leave home and forge a path for herself.

Distributor: Emerging Pictures
Production: PH.D. Productions
Cast: Taryn Manning, Madison Davenport, Maddie Hasson, Kurt Fuller, Nora Dunn, Kali Hawk, Carter Jenkins
Director: Valerie Weiss
Screenwriter: Moira McMahon Leeper
Producers: Jeffrey Loeb, Robert Johnson
Executive producers: Valerie Weiss, Moira McMahon Leeper
Director of photography: Jeffrey Waldron
Production designer: Merje Veski
Editor: Amanda Griffin
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Composer: John Swihart
Casting: Claire Simon, Alyssa Weisberg

Not rated, 90 minutes

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