on July 05, 2002 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
   Psychotherapy's roller coaster of emotional extremes proves an uneven ride in the deliberate, experimental mockumentary "Group," from independent filmmakers Anne de Marcken and Marilyn Freeman. Presenting bits and pieces of the 21-week life of a therapy group on a screen split six ways to capture individual dynamics, the film is a combination of improvisation, clever editing and frustrating gaps. Despite flashes of real insight in dredging up the emotional rawness possible through analysis, "Group" also never shakes a sense of contrivance edged with occasional bits of soap opera theatrics.

   De Marcken and Freeman were inspired when, to try out their script about an all-women therapy group, they engaged a therapist and seven actors to read through it. Delighted by the footage of the reading, they decided to scrap the script and turn the film into a mock-documentary, roughing out each character with each actor, then allowing the "sessions" to proceed freely under the gentle prodding of real therapist Ruby Martin.

   Despite the change in course, the characters still fall into stereotypes that seem all the more so because they appear almost painfully extreme and placed with the group solely to provoke: Pipi, played by performance artists Nomy Lamm, is an overweight, punkish "queer" who has lost one leg to cancer; Grace, played by rock singer Carrie Brownstein, is a repressed control freak who is mortified that her father has begun dating a 17-year-old; and Clansey is a devout Christian nurse. The others include an older "square" woman uneasy with the "queer-friendly" dynamics of the group's members; a woman fond of casual sex; and a smart-mouthed wise-ass who declares her problem is being bored with herself. Notes on the film describe the others as an enigma and a binger, but the "twist" on the former is that she has two lines in the entire film (which provides frustration rather than interest) and with the latter it's never clear that she does indeed binge or why.

   Focusing on the stronger characters within the group allows absorbing tensions to build over revelations and clashing opinions, but it also leaves a gap and sense of wonder of what the quieter group members gained from their five-month experience. It's probably not unusual for a real therapy group member or two to never fully explore their issues even over that length of time, but as they are presented in "Group," often in roving shots or tight, unrelenting close-ups, it's exasperating.

   The cameras and their operators are never explained within the group setting, although they are often viewed within the six wandering frames. Like much of this intriguing if incomplete-feeling project, it's not always clear exactly what was intended.    Starring Nomy Lamm, Carrie Brownstein and Tony Wilkerson. Directed and written by Marilyn Freeman and Anne de Marcken. Produced by Marilyn Freeman, Anne de Marcken and Margery B. Brown. An Artistic License release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 109 min.

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