MRR Review: "Frankie & Alice"

Photo Credit: Codeblack Entertainment

Rating: R
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Directed by: Geoffrey Sax
Genre: Biography / Drama

"Frankie & Alice" is a Canadian film based on the life of Frankie Murdoch, an African American go-go dancer and stripper living in 1970s Los Angeles. Starring Halle Berry, it leads the viewer through the discovery that Frankie has dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities, and how she struggles with this revelation. With the help of a psychotherapist, who is played by Stellan Skarsgard, Frankie must dig into her past to reveal the cause of her condition.

The film opens on an average night of work for Frankie, who is dancing for money in a popular club. She is then seen backstage, discussing work humorously with the other girls. However, the protagonist's problem is hinted at quickly. Her first onscreen switch occurs after only 10 minutes. This drives the focus directly to the subject of mental health without hiding such a dark subject behind a thriller-style plot. Instead, the film aims to dramatically highlight the realities of mental health issues.

In her dual role as producer and star, Berry is given the necessary freedom to explore all of her characters. As Frankie, she is a vivacious woman who confidently navigates the world of bars and strip-clubs to stay afloat. As Alice, she is a highly racist white southern woman who lives a life outside the bounds of Frankie's lifestyle and bank account. The switch between characters is seamless, expert and appropriately dramatic. The role powerfully demonstrates Berry's dramatic range.

The pace at which the character's mental health declines is quick, and the audience experiences more frequent glimpses into Frankie's troubled past and the lives of her alternate personalities. It is not without the help of Dr. Oz, played by Stellan Skarsgard, that she is able to fully acknowledge the truth of her situation. Once placed under psychiatric care, Frankie is forced to confront the hidden memories and trauma that are being masked by her split personalities. It is here that the second alternate personality appears. This personality is a hyper-intelligent child simply referred to as Genius who acts by helping Frankie. It is this element of her personality that Dr. Oz must work to befriend to unlock the secrets of Frankie's condition.

The relationship between the two characters is not entirely as one-sided as patient and doctor because Frankie and Alice interject observations about the state of Dr. Oz's love life into their sessions. This aspect of the story is sadly underdeveloped, but their friendship can be seen in small acts such as the gift of Frankie's favorite sweets. Dr. Oz serves in the role of a protective, fatherly figure in the film rather than as a romantic interest.

The film is set in the 1970s, when the treatments for mental health problems such as dissociative identity disorder were still being tested and developed. In the film, we see Dr. Oz come under fire from his boss and coworkers as the seriousness of his work is questioned. To them, a black, borderline-alcoholic stripper who is arrested for acts of aggression is a case unworthy of thorough attention.

When Frankie is allowed to check out of the hospital early against the wishes of Dr. Oz, he must track her down to complete his unfinished work. In the process of finding her, he meets her mother and sister, and he visits the club she used to work in, which reveals Frankie's disorder to them. When he rescues her as Alice from the unwanted attention of two men, the memory of her lover's death is revealed. This is only part of Frankie's hidden history. In revealing the lies about her work and whereabouts to her family, Dr. Oz allows Frankie to move past her protective truths and confront the real history of her disorder as well as her mother's role in the story.

Berry's passion for the subject matter as well as for issues concerning women and mental health shine through in her work. Claiming inspiration from her mother's work as a psychiatric nurse, she sets out to tackle the taboo of mental health in modern society, demonstrating how important support is in an individual's recovery. Although a condition like dissociative identity disorder is unlikely to be cured outright, it is important to know that hiding it under further lies can just make the condition more complex. With honesty and support from family and professionals, people such as Frankie Murdoch can move past their traumas and live a normal life.

"Frankie & Alice" provides a glimpse into the complexities of human personality and how people can segregate parts of themselves to overcome negative events in their lives. It is a film with a solid goal of telling the story of a woman with multiple personality disorder with little distraction from this message. The cast works well as a group, coming together to provide powerful support to Berry's exploration of the main character. Initially screened at festivals and released in 2010, its late theatrical release in 2014 gives it a second chance to contribute to positive portrayals of mental health in contemporary cinema.