I Am Normal

By Olia Oparina | Drama
A woman pretends to be mentally unstable to be admitted to a secret experiment.

Keira is part of an experiment: though she's perfectly fine, she's being sent into a psychiatric ward to test if the doctors and nurses can accurately detect her fake diagnosis. She also has an agenda of her own: she wants to find out what happened to a friend she knew, who was in the same ward and supposedly died by her own hand.

But Keira's time in the ward goes unexpectedly, even after she acts normally. She finds those in charge of her care to be unresponsive to her entreaties and pleas. Instead, they're authoritarian, cold and sometimes cruel. Soon Keira realizes that she may be trapped, with her sanity hanging in the balance.

Written by Anya Bay and directed by Olia Oparina, this absorbing short drama takes its inspiration from the famous Rosenhan experiment. Conducted by Stanford professor Dr. Daniel Rosenhan in 1973, participants in the experiment feigned hallucinations to gain entrance to psychiatric wards but then acted normally afterward. The intent was to test if wards could distinguish a wrongful diagnosis.

Like the timeframe of the real-life experiment, this film takes place in the 1970s, and has the look and feel of rebellious Hollywood cinema of that time, with its muted, faded colors and textured cinematography. The film was shot by cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who tragically lost her life on the set of the feature film Rust.) The excellent writing fully takes on the premise of the experiment, which has plenty of inherent dramatic charge.

But the emotional tempo and temperature of the film are more exploratory, focused on Keira's interactions with the hospital staff and the tenor of the ward in general. What Keira discovers is a cold, unfeeling place, less interested in treatment, care and therapy and more concerned with achieving compliance from its charges. Patients are forcibly drugged and are otherwise treated disrespectfully. More importantly, we see how patients are dehumanized, reduced to their psychiatric labels and treated deplorably.

The initial dramatic question is when Keira will be discovered as normal. But as the narrative unfolds, actor Nora-Jane Noone's performance slowly reveals how her treatment by the staff and hospital policies ekes away at her sense of self and autonomy. The dramatic question then shifts to the price that Keira will pay for her time in the ward. By the end of the film, we see just how her time in the ward, and its callous cruelty to those it is charged to care for, has affected her.

The Rosenhan study was a landmark experiment that brought issues of wrongful involuntary confinement and psychiatric diagnosis to the fore. But "I Am Normal" draws a compelling, disturbing portrait of what happens when we are defined by a diagnosis, and how it shapes how we are seen and treated. Though the film and experiment took place in the 1970s, we still live in a world where a mental illness can define who we are to an unhealthy extent. The stigma can affect how others see and treat us; it can erase the nuance of who we are. And as Keira learns, it can erase our humanity, leading to depression and helplessness. It makes one wonder if true insanity is found in the cruelty that society doles out to those most vulnerable and in need of care.

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