'Out of My Head': Film Review

Out of My Head Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Eleventh Hour Films Production
A fascinating look at an often misunderstood condition.

Susanna Styron's documentary explores the neurological disorder known as migraine, which afflicts nearly a billion people worldwide.

Director/screenwriter Susana Styron had a very personal reason to make a film about the debilitating effects of migraines. Her daughter Emma is a chronic sufferer, having experienced her first migraine attack when she was just 14 years old. Helping Emma struggle with the condition spurred the filmmaker to explore the subject in Out of My Head, her informative and engrossing documentary receiving its world premiere in a theatrical engagement as part of the Museum of Modern Art's Doc Fortnight 2018.

In case you were wondering what Virginia Woolf, Thomas Jefferson, Georgia O'Keefe and Thomas Jefferson had in common, it's that they all suffered from migraines. Among the notables currently afflicted is writer Joan Didion, seen in the film reading from In Bed, her essay about the subject.  

"When I say a headache, I don't mean just a headache," she reads. "I mean something that would totally brutalize you."

The documentary includes commentary by numerous doctors and academics, one of whom describes a migraine as a "neurological disorder." Among the symptoms it can produce are a visual abnormality known as an "aura," which several of the sufferers who've experienced it attempt vainly to describe; aphasia, the inability to express or understand language, the dramatic effects of which are demonstrated in footage of a television reporter experiencing the condition during a live broadcast; and headaches, of the truly severe, debilitating variety. Fortunately, the doc's dense torrent of clinical information is alleviated by charming animated interludes created by Maya Edelman.

Among the film's interview subjects are a family in which the husband, wife and teenage daughter all experience regular migraines ("It makes for a very tense household," he comments); a woman whose husband became a migraine cure activist; and a man whose migraine attacks were disbelieved by his work colleagues who thought that the condition only affected women.

There is no definitive cure for migraines, with one doctor describing his goal as bringing his patients "from an unbearable pain to a bearable pain." The illness is problematic because it becomes resistant to medications, with the result that doctors have to engage in "trial and error" medicine.

The documentary also explores the influence that migraines have had in culture, from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (for which "Alice in Wonderland syndrome" is named) to the art and writings of Hildegard Von Bingen, the Catholic saint who claimed to have experienced visions starting when she was very young.

Not surprisingly, the doc strongly advocates for increased funding for research into migraines, which is currently woefully inadequate. It also notes that there are approximately only 500 certified headache specialists in the country, resulting in a staggering ratio of one doctor for roughly every 76,000 patients.

Out of My Head feels a bit padded despite its brief running time, featuring such unnecessary scenes as one of the families meeting with Congressman John Lewis, who of course promises to do all he can for their cause. But that's a forgivable flaw in this heartfelt documentary shedding much-needed light on a too often misunderstood condition.  

Production company: Eleventh Hour Films
Director-screenwriter: Susana Styron
Producer: Jacki Ochs

Directors of photography: Edwin Martinez, Stephen McCarthy, Stefan Thissen, Philip Van
Editor: Francisco Bello

Composer: Wendy Blackstone
Animator: Maya Edelman

Venue: Doc Fortnight 2018

78 minutes