Anyone who’s been watching Michael McKean’s character on Better Call Saul will recognize the affliction Drew Xanthopoulos investigates in The Sensitives, a documentary so affecting and effective it will make viewers feel grateful they are healthy enough to see it in a theater. The film profiles several sufferers of a medical condition that induces a hypersensitivity to one’s environment. Its victims endure adverse effects to electricity, cellular signals, fragrances, chemicals, you name it, and the exposure often leaves them debilitated. The Sensitives, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, gives much-needed attention to a rare illness, the underlying cause of which remains medically murky.
The filmmaker adopts a very personal approach, eschewing commentary from doctors and other experts to focus instead on how various people live with the disease. Joe, for example, is so enfeebled by his condition that he’s forced to rely on his supportive, long-suffering wife, Lanie. She, in turn, has to practically live in the dark because her husband can’t tolerate artificial light. Karen and her adult twin sons, Sam and Nathan, live together in a sterilized home that they haven’t left for years, relying on Karen’s 96-year-old mother to bring supplies. Susie, on the other hand, made a remarkable recovery after moving to a “community for the chemically and electrically sensitive” in the charmingly named town of Snowflake, Ariz.
Susie has made it her mission to spread awareness of the disease, which often engenders skepticism because of its mysterious attributes. She’s also a poster child for the possibility of recovery, as evidenced by her shockingly unhealthy appearance in a 1992 documentary filmed before she found relief by moving to her cloistered home.
Observational and impressionistic, the film delivers such up-close-and-personal portraits of its subjects that it’s often uncomfortable to watch. The lack of contextual information sometimes proves frustrating, and there is a certain amount of inevitable repetitiveness. But only the most insensitive of viewers will fail to be moved by The Sensitives, which puts a very human face on a condition too easily ridiculed or disbelieved.
Production: Normies, Blue Suitcase, Back Allie Entertainment
Director/director of photography: Drew Xanthopoulos
Producer: David Hartstein
Executive producer: Andrea Meditch
Editor: David Fabelo
Composer: Hanan Townshend
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival