Becoming a woman can be a traumatizing experience. Your body transforms. It bleeds. Your hormones swing wildly, subjecting you to fits of rage, sadness, lust, and self-doubt. You may look in the mirror and see someone you don’t recognize. You might rebel against this lack of control by acting out with booze, sex, and drugs. In these regards, the 15-year-old heroine of Blue My Mind is pretty common. But where this Fantastic Fest entry takes a dramatic and sensationally strange turn is that she is not becoming a woman. She’s becoming a mermaid. Far from a fantastical and glamorous experience, it’s one swimming in trauma and body horror.
Wild-eyed ingénue Luna Wedler stars as Mia, a high schooler who is struggling in the wake of moving to a new town. Then she begins experiencing inexplicable urges. Her dreams are swells of ocean tides and swirling sounds. She thirsts for salt water and makes surreptitious snacks of her mother’s pet fish. She feels disconnected from her scowling parents, and suspects if she might be adopted. At school, Mia becomes enamored with the mean girls, led by the ferocious and unapologetically sultry Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen). Whether twerking in the schoolyard, shoplifting from a mall, or sneaking drugs on field trips, these girls seem fearless and free, and Mia wants in, whatever the cost.
Meanwhile, Mia’s toes fuse together. Her legs become discolored, looking like bruises or a horrible black-and-blue rash. Harrowingly realistic practical effects create first jaw-dropping reveals of her transforming body, then stomach-churning scares as Mia attempts DIY surgery to cut away her unattractive eccentricities. She self-mutilates or covers herself to hide these differences from her peers, and then drowns her fear of rejection in booze, and seeks acceptance through hasty hook-ups. But Mia can’t run from who she is. Her body changes no matter what. Yet just when it seems this monster movie will condemn its confused heroine to an inescapable hell, Mia’s friendship with Gianna proves vital, driving to a conclusion that is surreal, beautiful, and bittersweet.
Remarkably, Blue My Mind is not only the first full-length film by Swiss actress turned writer/director Lisa Brühlmann, but also her graduation feature from film school. There’s a confidence in the storytelling and trust in the audience that had me assuming Brühlmann was an established overseas talent finally getting her due Stateside. Instead, she’s simply an incredibly strong filmmaker right out the gate. This is chiefly evident in that Mia is not forced to spout confiding monologues to baby-step us through her inner turmoil. Instead, Brühlmann trusts in Wedler, whose face in close-up communicates volumes, tapping into the panic, pain, and rage that’s familiar to anyone who has ever suffered through being a teenager.
Beyond that, Brühlmann employs an ungrounded camera that gives the film a sense of motion, inclusion, and spontaneity as we chase Mia and Gianna from sketchy hookups to sketchier parties. It feels like we’re running with them, one with the crowd, caught up in the exhilaration, but also racked with unease. Slowly paced and deeply moody, Blue My Mind casts a siren’s spell over its audience. Luring us into Mia’s anxieties, feeling her shock and shame, and binding us to her need to escape. Even when she’s violent, reckless or repulsive, we root for her and fear for her, because we’ve been there too.
The female body has long been a subject of fascination in horror, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the subgenre of coming-of-age monster movies have often focused on girls. Notables include the demon-centered Jennifer’s Body, the cannibal story Raw, the werewolf drama Ginger Snaps, and the Polish mermaid musical, The Lure. Frequently, these stories present the puberty of cisgender women as something bloody and disgusting, but also as something powerful and cruelly misunderstood. Blue My Mind does the same, and masterfully so, blending earnest and authentic teen drama with shocking body horror. From top to tails, it’s a haunting and poignant film, alive with beauty, pain, and heart.
Blue My Mind made its North America Premiere at Fantastic Fest.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com