The Diabetic is screening as part of the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 14 – August 3.
Shot on Hi-8 and transferred to 16mm, The Diabetic is hazy and grainy, a distinct aesthetic choice to mirror the protagonist’s harried state. His name is Alek (James Watts), and he seems dead-set on going on a bender.
Returning home to see his parents, early-30-something Alek reaches out to anyone still in town in pursuit of a drink and some company. A type one diabetic, Alek continues taking shots and doing drugs through the night despite the negative effects on his blood sugar level. He holds in quarter-life-crisis energy while outwardly presenting an anxious energy. And the whole endeavor appears as an attempted escape from the adulthood that his friend Matt (Travis Cannon) has settled into.
The Diabetic is a cry out into the urban abyss. A feverish ambling through past lives best left past. It is a premise that sounds almost cliche, and which perhaps would be were it not for the distinctive visual patterns and Watts’ lead performance. The quiet desperation in Watts’ Alek is not overplayed, but instead propels the film forward into a tense precarity.
Director Mitchell Safiej films The Diabetic almost entirely in tight close-ups. It is a tactic which calls to mind similarly anxious dramas of recent years, films like Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, the Safdies’ Good Time, and even Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. (all films I adore, to be clear).
With little room to breathe, these shots shut off much of the city that defines this character’s past and present. And the city might indeed be less important than Alek believes it to be. He wants the night to mean something, wants to tear through the Montreal West Island that raised him. Alek and Matt’s conversation always circles back to how much or how little the city means to them. But Alek’s condemnation of the West Island is more tied to his dissatisfaction with his life outside of it.
One of the few respites from the nauseating close-ups are smeary interludes, often red-tinted and accompanied by an abstract voiceover. They don’t provide any clarity to the proceedings, only managing to make things more queasy as Alek’s night grows increasingly incoherent. While these sequences are occasionally visually engaging, they work to drag the nervous energy of the film down to something more narcotic, and I preferred one of these registers over the other.
With The Diabetic, you are more likely to be hooked on the disorienting aesthetic than compelled by the story being unraveled. This is mainly due to this character study having nowhere else to go but exactly where you expect. Scenes are added which divert from Alek’s drunken quest toward self-awareness, and these scenes contribute to the tense tone. They don’t, however, do much for Alek’s overall arc and almost feel episodic in there inclusion. And by the end of the film, the circling, existential conversation about time and place has grown too repetitive to be fully resonant. All told, though, Stafiej has produced a formally dynamic film worth considering.
The Diabetic: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)