[Chattanooga Film Festival Review] MIND BODY SPIRIT

[Chattanooga Film Festival Review] MIND BODY SPIRIT
At any given moment of any day, millions of people flock to the internet for answers, entertainment, and even for more nefarious reasons. For every safe space that can be found online, there are at least ten different corners of the web filled with all levels of debauchery and depravity. Anonymous souls with such handles as RiversOfGore and Torture_Compilation do not reveal any personal information about themselves because they let their names let everyone know what they are looking for. And while some corners of the world wide web clearly advertise themselves as corrupt, others try a more uplifting approach.

However, in the directorial debut of Alex Henes and Matthew Merenda, their film MIND BODY SPIRIT shows the darkness that lurks even in the most wholesome situations. In an attempt to stifle some of the darkness in the world, our main character Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) hopes to fill her life (and possibly others) with refreshing and positive thoughts. She teaches us how to find peace, balance our mind and body, eat healthily, and of course, conjure evil spirits.

Anya, the enthusiastic (and amateur) yoga instructor loves good physical, mental, and emotional health, and she wants to encourage others to take life-improving risks. After inheriting a really nice house, she takes this amazing opportunity to try her luck at becoming an influencer. The chipper and awkward clips show the character’s motivation to try something new, but also the frustration she feels because of her limitations. She struggles to find her brand and while she aspires to very lofty goals, she does not have the know-how nor the skills to propel her to the level of internet famous. We get a sense she is starting over in her life and trying to reinvent herself. And while yoga might not show her the answer, maybe the creepy hidden passage in her new house will help.

Anya finds some interesting relics from her grandmother’s past stowed away in a secret room in her home. Finding mysterious books and obviously haunted passageways seems like a super marketable idea for a channel. However, she remains dedicated to her yoga lessons, determined to make her videos the most important part of her daily life. She keeps recording her yoga tutorials and tries to convince her mother that her new life is worth living.

Every piece of film presented to the viewer comes as either an unedited video or a Zoom call. We only see Anya through the lens of a laptop or her phone’s camera, which means we never see how Anya sees herself. We see how her judgmental mother sees her or how the unseen nameless internet audience observes her. Merenda and Henes play with the traditional tale of a person moving into a haunted house, but they let the familiar media of internet clips tell their story. The stringing together of short videos punctuated with the loading wheel and even diegetic ads makes the film imitate the feeling we are watching a YouTube playlist.

As the story progresses, Anya’s actions become less performative and more like voyeuristic observations as the camera continues to watch her. Through the use of long takes, the directors build tension as the unblinking eye of the camera forces us to stare at Anya. Even when there are pleas to cut and stop recording, the camera continues to look. Much like any influencer, the longer they expose themselves and remain under the gaze of others the more they lose themselves. And aside from these uncomfortable lengthy shots creating moments of anticipation, they can also hypnotize and lull the viewer into a state of false security.

The creepiness of MIND BODY SPIRIT starts pretty quickly and even when it appears we are witnessing a calm conversation, there is actually something sinister lurking somewhere in frame. The story follows similar premises seen throughout the found-footage subgenre, but Bartholomew’s exceptional portrayal of Anya and the director’s use of space and the 360-degree camera pan provide enough unique visual qualities to make the story stand out.

MIND BODY SPIRIT played as a part of the 2023 Chattanooga Film Festival.

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