My Beautiful Broken Brain Review

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I am so glad I just watched the Netflix documentary “My Beautiful Broken Brain” about documentary film producer Lotje Sodderland from 2014. I typically have no patience for documentaries that begin with people talking about the film’s main star, but you don’t hear from the star themselves. Especially when it’s about disability, it’s often melodramatic and sometimes condescending, or you think the star has actually died when they really haven’t. But in this film, it works. Because the movie starts with Lotje’s stroke, and she couldn’t speak at all during the stroke, well, it made sense that we wouldn’t hear from her first. And we only wait less than 8 minutes before Lotje shows up in iPhone selfie footage in the hospital.

Image of Lotje Sodderland lying on a wood floor with her hair flowing above her and eyes closed. "My Beautiful Broken Brain" is written in a thought bubble with sketched images of rainbows, lines, stars, and lightning.

While it’s visually stunning and rich, sensitive folks beware: lots of blinking lights and colors (ouch), and a snippet of actual brain surgery (eww). The film does an outstanding job of disorienting the audience by using tons of extremely beautiful visual special effects, and layering echoes of Lotje’s voice in the background. It might not be exactly what it feels like to have aphasia (her language disorder that a lot of people get from a stroke) or her specific visual perception, but it throws you off balance enough that you feel something. It’s a great technique. I mean there’s nothing more odd than watching a documentary where someone sits there and tells the camera how awful something is, but they look essentially calm and fine.

Her brother, Jan, makes a beautiful statement very early on that her situation must be very alienating for her since communication and interactions are so difficult. In a world where we tend to focus pity, heartbreak, and dismay on a disabled person’s existence, I can’t express how much I appreciate that he points out her isolation. It’s not just that she can’t read. She can’t read all the “we love you” and “get well soon” messages her friends are leaving her on Facebook. She also talks about the isolation of being in a world that no one else experiences because her hearing and vision have changed so much. Lotje knows no one else sees and hears things the way she does, and that pulls her apart from the world. So what does she do? Sends video letters to David Lynch, of course. Her distorted vision reminds her of Lynch’s surreal “Twin Peaks” Red Room. But more importantly, his perspective on humanity opens her to her own possibilities and vulnerabilities during recovery.

A wonderful combination of selfie iPhone footage and footage by filmmaker Sophie Robinson, I can’t recommend this movie enough if you can tolerate the blinking and flashing lights and special effects that often distort half the screen. As I’ve said many times in my presentations, sometimes it’s in the storytelling of our own lives that we can begin to even comprehend something as substantial as a brain injury. While Lotje originally started filming because she couldn’t remember things and had no sense of linear time, filmmaking became her way of making sense of her situation. Watching Lotje sort through both the physical recovery and her questions about the mind and what it means to be human is very moving, and the film is simply amazing.

The film is captioned, but unfortunately the trailer is not. I’ve never quite understood why that happens, but it does.

Watch this movie now, streaming on Netflix.