“An Alternative to Slitting Your Wrist” was amongst the most talked-about entries at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and not just for its over-the-top title. Several additional screenings were scheduled to accommodate demand. On March 25, the movie was shown simultaneously on two screens. Director Owen Lowery was present afterwards to participate in a Q and A (which I could not attend).

Making a documentary about yourself is a pretty narcissistic thing to do. But when you’re the son of an alcoholic father and the victim of multiple childhood rapes by a neighbor, I suppose that “well adjusted” is not a term that is going to be used to describe you very often. Owen Lowery is an Ohio native who now lives in Chicago, and after suffering the aforementioned indignities, he adopted his father’s alcohol problem, and was eventually admitted to a mental health clinic after a suicide attempt. Further irony: both of his parents are social workers.

Owen decides to make a sort of inverted “bucket list,” or a list of things to do *instead of* dying rather than *before* dying. The idea is to put fifty-two things on this list, and to accomplish at least one of them per week over the course of a year, as a way to enjoy life while also exorcizing his demons. Verily, some of the items on the list are completely goofy (tongue kiss the boss, be a zombie, be stung by a scorpion), while others are rather pedestrian (build his own bike, wear an Armani suit), and the rest are clearly exercises in catharsis (beat up the guy who molested him, record his father’s songs, blow up a Big Boy toy that symbolizes the worst bits of his childhood).

What Owen discovers in the end is that the old self-help saying is absolutely true: “wherever you go, there you are.” Owen cannot escape from himself, his past, his demons, his life, his history. No matter how much fun he and his friends have squirrel fishing, no matter how many road trips he takes, and no matter how hard he tries to bond with his father, Owen realizes that everyone is doomed to live the life they find themselves living. There are no redos, no undos, we all just have to carry on, move forward, and deal with the cards we are dealt.

It seems that most people would realize these things as a natural part of the maturing process, but Owen has clearly had some obstacles placed before him that he cannot get around. His film is sometimes touching and occasionally funny, but it borders strongly on TMI. It takes courage to pour ones soul out on film, and to admit to things that most people would be ashamed of. But it also takes a certain restraint to know when to stop, and a certain wisdom to know when your story stops being interesting to others and simply becomes self-indulgent. The fragile Owen has had a very difficult life, but his self-pity can become tiresome after a while. We all have problems, and there are plenty of people out there who have things a lot worse than Owen Lowery. When he goes out onto a rainy street with umbrellas in order to “make other people happy” (a list item), he muses about his own motivations: are his actions truly for these other people, or are they really for himself? Although this question isn’t dwelt upon for very long, it is the crux of the story: self-actualization involves thinking of others first and placing one’s own desires second.

Is Owen Lowery brave or crazy?
Is he brutally honest or hopelessly introverted?
Maybe he is all of these things.

Given that this film was made with a hand-held consumer-grade video camera, so as to be able to document things in a fast and spontaneous manner, it is no surprise that it is a mess visually. I’d normally give this a pass, due to the nature of the show. But, during the film, we discover that Lowery is a professional video editor. Thus, he must have some familiarity with the rest of the production process. Couldn’t he have even tried to make some of his shots look something other than dreadful? A little bit of effort here would have been nice.

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  1. Wade says:

    “We all have problems, and there are plenty of people out there who have things a lot worse than Owen Lowery.”

    This is the exact ghost of thought that that haunts many people who suffer from depression and mental health issues, psychologically restraining them from seeking the help they need. It’s also the attitude that predisposes society to dismiss the mental health field as frivolous, as if all anyone needs is a big healthy dose of ‘suck it up’. To the sufferer of these living nightmares, the lives of other people don’t play a part; they have their own experiences, traumas and demons to exorcise which are entirely real and overwhelming to them.

    Mr. Lowery isn’t the only one to have suffered in this way, to have travelled through the ‘system’ and still come out the other side with a gnawing shadow intent draining the life from their veins. 1 in 10 in the US battle depression which translates into 30 million people, each suffering to one degree or another. Of them, 30,000 commit suicide every year. In Canada, 4.5 million or 1 in 5 suffer the same, while almost 4000 of them decide they cannot endure the silent agony any more.

    Do not claim your opinion as if it were fact, please.

  2. Father Tony Ramos says:

    I agree with almost all the posters on this comment board. OWEN did a unbelievable job Filming and Editing this Story about his personal struggle. I wish this movie would’ve been played on primetime TV so that parents could watch this with their children and hopefully open up some dialoge at home about depression and to assure children (If not, maybe to also teach parents to learn the importance of listening to what your children have to say) that they can always come to either parent to tell them anything and that they will always be believed and not turned away or made fun of.
    If only more directors had the courage Owen Lowery has maybe more movies would be this heart touching and emotional.

    I would very much love to meet and speak to Owen Lowery, it would be one of the few highlights of my life. May you have continued success in all your future projects.

    Father Tony Ramos.

  3. Heather J. says:

    What I like about this film is that, in the end, it was a happy ending and yet not a happy ending. Owen wasn’t being false in saying that his life was completely changed and that he’s happier than he was.

    He proved something: a person cannot change in the course of the year. You will change in how you think and how you see things but it won’t happen over night or dramatically like it does in a Hollywood film. I hope, though, that Owen has not given up hope that he will one day be the man he wants to be.

  4. Nikki says:

    I too am watching this for the first time. The “realness” of the film as a whole, is enlightening, comforting and inspiring as I too suffer from manic depression. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions and loss of friends over the years, but setting small goals like Owen did, once a week, is a good reminder to help ourselves be happy and to continue living this life we are living for a reason though we may not know why.

    So in simplistic terms, Good film!!!

  5. unknowntochu says:

    I’m watching it right now, and as a person who at all hours of the day thinks about nothing but suicide, this film came on the night i was considering it again, but i dont anymore. it’s perfect the imperfect way it is. it gave me an Alternative to slitting me wrist.

  6. Debbie says:

    As the mother of a son that presently resides in a mental rehabilitation facility, this film touched my soul. I laughed, I cried, I felt.
    The comments about how he should have made it professional are shallow…if you had some experiance with a mentally hurt human you may understand more of the way it was filmed and see it as maybe how he feels.
    I loved this film and I will recommend it to others.

  7. Katelyn says:

    Honestly, I thought that the way the documentary was shot was absolutely perfect for the purpose of the film. If it looked too professional, it would have almost seemed fake, like it was planned out beforehand to look a way that life didn’t intend for it to look.

    Despite the self-indulgent overtones, it suited the mood of the story very naturally, and I saw the documentary as something Lowery used to try and get over his past, and with that in mind, a bit of self-indulgence would be preferred rather than restraint.

    The movie seemed entirely natural in every aspect of it, and it was a nice change from the documented crap Hollywood spits out every so often that I stopped bothering to watch about 5 years ago.

    In short, I loved every aspect of this film.

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