Movie Review – Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse (Portland Film Festival)
James Philip Chasse, Jr. was born on May 7, 1964. He died on September 17, 2006. He was mentally ill, yet he was living independently. He went off his medication and was starting to deteriorate when he was chased down by a Portland police officer who inflicted injuries on Chasse. The police denied him medical care, ignoring his condition. Chasse later died while in police custody. Filmmaker Brian Lindstrom with the help of the Mental Health Association of Portland profiles Chasse’s 42 years and then using eye-witness testimonies, interviewed on camera, court records and police reports, as well as the eventual internal affairs investigation, Lindstrom reconstructs and analyzes the final moments of Chasse’s life.
There have been several documentaries about people dealing with friends or family suffering from mental illness like Tarnation (2003) and Prodigal Sons (2010). I’ve only seen two that were told almost first-person or using the mentally-ill person’s own voice. One is The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). Another is arguably Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2006).
Cobain wasn’t mentally ill. He was troubled, but not to the point he needed a doctor’s supervision, so this movie does echo The Devil and Daniel Johnston more. Both Chasse and Daniel Johnston are similar artists. They look completely different. Johnston is hairless and slightly overweight. Chasse is skinny, long-haired and bearded, but, like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Lindstrom animates the pencil or line drawings of Chasse, giving us insight into his mind, his humor and irony.
The key difference is the police aspects of Chasse’s story. Half-way through, Lindstrom finishes profiling Chasse and dives into the police incident, which led to Chasse’s death. Chief among the people put under the microscope is Police Officer Christopher Humphreys. Humphreys was the one who actually chased Chasse down. Showing Humphreys’ videotaped interrogation is one of the most damning things ever.
With the recent film Fruitvale Station, we’re given an incident of a police encounter with an unarmed man that ends in his death, opening up a discussion about race relations and gun control. This film does the same, but instead opens up a discussion about the way mentally ill people are treated or rather mistreated or even not treated at all. What makes this documentary rise about Fruitvale Station is the questioning of Humphreys. How more fascinating would it have been if the cop who killed Oscar Grant had been questioned on camera? Lindstrom is able to deliver that fascination and satisfaction.
As one person interviewed by Lindstrom points out, at the end of the day, the issues of mental illness are incidental. People argue that Chasse died due to either police corruption or police incompetence. A lawsuit is filed against the Portland police and Lindstrom follows that case, and where he follows it is down a horrifying rabbit hole.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
For more information, go to PortlandFilmFestival.com.