I’ve seen Altered Minds described as a psychological thriller, which is in part accurate. I prefer to think of it more as a psychological mystery. I went to public school with the Writer and Director and Producer Michael Z. Wechsler, so I already had made a mental note to see this film when it was released. A small crowdfunding campaign for additional production costs let me back it and get an early copy of the DVD.
The film stars Judd Hirsch as Dr. Nathaniel Shellner, a Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist now 75 years old and slowly dying from cancer. As his family gathers for his birthday celebration, chaos begins to ensue as youngest son Tommy exhibits a worsening mental instability and paranoid accusations directed at his father. Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), who was adopted by the family as a youngster, is joined at the get-together by fellow adopted children Julie (Jaime Ray Newman) and Harry (C.S. Lee, who many will recognize from his role on the Showtime series Dexter). Also in attendance is the Doctor’s faithful wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt) and eldest child Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) who is the only natural child.
As you would expect, one has to tread lightly when reviewing a film like this because of the need to avoid any spoilers. The focus of the celebration quickly moves from Nathaniel to Tommy, and even though his rantings and stories sound fantastic they begin to have an effect on his two adopted siblings as well. As Dr. Shellner’s work has focused on traumatized patients – especially those from war zones or former military personnel – the adopted children have vague memories of their lives before being rescued and brought to the United States. And there is the usual tension between adopted children and the one natural child. Tommy becomes more and more insistent about his claims, and soon it becomes clear there may be more to the family history than meets the eye.
Shot on a moderate budget, the home and surrounding winter landscape is quite beautiful and captures the isolation the family is experiencing; there is no world but the family itself at that moment, and the microscope can only be turned within. Ryan O’Nan does a rather good turn as the troubled Tommy. His role is one that could have easily succumbed to overacting but I found he managed to walk the tightrope successfully. To my surprise, the acting I was least impressed with was that of my personal favorite Judd Hirsch and of Caroline Lagerfelt. Granted, both characters are quite reserved in personality, but I never was fully convinced by their moments of strong emotion, whether love or anger or despair. I think Mr. Hirsch played his Dr. Shellner a touch too analytically, and perhaps that reflected onto his wife’s character.
Wechsler enjoys some clever misdirection in the plot; at least enough to muddy the waters and allow you to focus more on what is happening and less on trying to guess the answers to all the looming questions. Not everything succeeds fully, but there is enough which works to make Altered Minds enjoyable and entertaining.
Overall I think most fans of this genre of film will enjoy Altered Minds, and it is good enough for me to forgive Wechsler for writing a negative review of the Romero/King masterpiece Creepshow back in 8th Grade. Considering how much I love that movie, you should be able to see I give Altered Minds more than a simple passing grade.