“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.