Disability has always been a key detail in the films of David Lynch. So it’s no surprise that the American master of weird cinema jumped at the possibility to help produce My Beautiful Broken Brain, a new documentary by filmmakers Lotje Sodderland and Sophie Robinson that just premiered at SXSW and will stream exclusively on Netflix today. The film tracks Sodderland, a 34-year-old Londoner who works at a demanding, always-connected job. More importantly, she’s also in recovery after suffering a debilitating brain hemorrhage. It’s a remarkable view into the narrow window of someone shouldering a traumatic brain injury, and one that’s in good company among Netflix’s distinctive lineup of original documentaries.
The film opens on Sodderland, post-op at the hospital, a black hoodie pulled over her head to hide a surgery scar, the remains of a blood clot doctors removed from her brain’s parietal and temporal lobes. “Okay, I’m alive,” she says, smiling at the pixelated camera on her iPhone. “I’m not dead. That’s a start.”
Sodderland’s stroke leaves her with major cognitive abnormalities. With her aphasia she can no longer speak normally, only create short term memories, and has struggles to read and writing. So, as a way to cope and to continue her recovery process, she keeps her iPhone camera on to document her experiences — even if she doesn’t have the capacity to explain it. The film constantly raises the question of Sodderland’s existence — and new her modes of communication.
Through a series of gleefully surreal iPhone footage, Sodderland learns to appreciate her broken brain in what she calls her “uncomfortable reality.” It’s a new way of living that Sodderland likens to a perpetual version of the infamous Red Room from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Everything is backwards, it doesn’t really make literal sense, but the familiar and recognizable pieces of everyday life are still there.
The vivid shots of Sodderland’s London street are blown out with color, and details on-screen slowly become not quite what they seem. She goes back to her apartment for the first time after the incident; she enters a neurological rehab facility to recuperate. She even undergoes an experimental non-invasive brain stimulation therapy, and we see the pain in her eyes. It’s something similar to a VR experience. Sodderland is living her own personal Lynchian nightmare.
The film never gets into the sort of macabre typically present in Lynch’s own movies, but replaces that sentiment with an embrace of Sodderland’s journey — similar to Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. While Lynch does appear in the film, Sodderland is, rightfully, the focus. The film never relies on melodrama, and the reason we feel an immediate connection to Sodderland — other than sympathy — is that the documentary is so frank. She’s documenting her struggle, but she’s also allowing us to see her at her most open, vulnerable, and genuine.
“The story will have an end,” she says into the camera at the end of the film. “The experience probably won’t.” And when the credits roll atop Nina Simone’s version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (translation: “Don’t Leave Me”) we realize that Sodderland’s odyssey has just begun. But the brief time we spend with her during her tragically real transformation is totally worth it.