Netflix UK film review: My Beautiful Broken Brain
Ivan Radford | On 20, Mar 2016
“An exquisite, painful nightmare.” That’s how Lotje Sodderland describes living after a stroke in this astonishing, vivid documentary. My Beautiful Broken Brain follows the 34-year-old’s recovery after her brain haemorrhage in 2011 – and more than lives up to its title in the process.
The film chronicles the hope and determination of Lotje as she pieces together what has happened to her and what her life has become. In fact, the film’s very existence is a testament to that strength and resolve – barely a week after her stroke, she asked director Sophie Robinson to help document her struggle to return to normality.
The result is a uniquely intimately portrait of a disability, as Sodderland talks directly to camera, shooting herself at every opportunity to explain what she’s feeling and thinking. Footage of her with her mother (with whom she must now live – an infantilising frustration) and her doctors bring scientific context and familial emotion to the tale, with Lotje’s candid descriptions and access-all-areas smartphone lens never flinching from the details. But it’s the visuals that transform this from an insightful examination of mental recuperation into something truly spellbinding.
The damage to Sodderland’s brain, we learn, is essentially irreversible, with her visual and her language parts of her brain able to work independently, but unable to communicate – a fact that makes it hard for her to read and write. Words are there when she types them, but slip into blurred nonsense when she looks back moments later. Robinson and Sodderland depict that literally on screen, distorting letters and symbols whenever they appear.
That innovative approach extends to the edge of the frame, which curls away into a rainbow haze, making it simultaneously impossible to see anything on the far right yet so breathtaking it’s hard not to stare. It’s this ability to show, rather than tell, that turns My Beautiful Broken Brain into an immersive, emotionally arresting piece of art. We don’t just hear about Lotje’s struggle – we’re forced to experience it first-hand.
While Netflix is at the top of the documentary’s credits, the name that really sticks out is executive producer David Lynch. What does the Twin Peaks creator have to do with this girl? Over the course of her video diaries, we realise that many of them are letters recorded directly for him. She speaks of discovering a new dimension, of an “extraordinary place where my brain once was”, something that she believes Lynch will understand and, perhaps on some level, even help to explain.
There’s an unspoken power in that attachment between cinema and the mind, in the faith of art to share experiences between strangers. By recording herself, Sodderland’s selfies craft her own cinematic narrative, reshaping her life’s story into one of creation rather than tragedy – a real-life David Lynch film that doesn’t shy away from the weirdness of her reality. Throughout, her flashes of humour, despite her visible distress, add to the empowering nature of her tale – a tale of despair and hope that embraces the power of the mind as well as its limitations. It’s painful – and utterly exquisite.
My Beautiful Broke Brain is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.