'Wake Up: Stories From the Frontline of Suicide Prevention': Film Review

Wake Up - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy of We Are One: A Global Film Festival
An important subject, explored with care but bland filmmaking.

Nate Townsend's doc examining pain and recovery among both those who have attempted suicide and those who have lost loved ones to it premiered as part of the We Are One online film festival.

While a new deadly pandemic continues to grip attention worldwide — understandably — the documentary Wake Up: Stories From the Frontline of Suicide Prevention throws the spotlight back on an ancient and no less complex scourge: suicide. A major contributor (along with substance abuse) to the inexorably rising number of deaths of despair in the United States, suicide is now a leading cause of death for several demographics, particularly young men.

Director Nate Townsend, who comes from a background in shorts and advertising, tackles the subject by emphasizing the personal stories above all, with a lighter focus on psychology, politics and sociology. The survivors met here — those who have attempted suicide and those who have lost loved ones to it — come from very diverse backgrounds and range from LGBTQ folks and bereaved parents to veterans and gun owners.

Although the film is somewhat uninspiring in a technical sense, with a mostly dreary bed of sad soundtrack music and a boilerplate editing style that mixes talking heads with observational footage as it weaves in and out of each story, the subject is relevant and important enough, especially these days, to make this useful, informative viewing. The upbeat conclusion seems a little forced, but maybe that’s what it takes to nudge the message across.

A dramatic re-creation opens the film with an actor, his face barely seen, re-enacting the last hours of University of Missouri student Ryan Candice’s life. Suffering from severe depression and anxiety, in part brought on by an accident that caused recurring vertigo, Ryan sought help in 2014 one night at several hospitals, hoping they could stop him from taking his own life. Denied admission, he killed himself hours later.

Ryan’s friend Alex Lindley, one of the executive producers here, and other friends of Ryan responded to the tragedy by establishing Project Wake Up, an organization that, according to its website, seeks to “investigate and fix current inadequacies in mental health funding, resources/awareness, and suicide prevention.” It would seem this film is the main fruit of their labors.

In addition to telling Ryan’s story, Townsend and the crew meet the family of Keller Zibilich, another young man who, like Ryan, took his own life while in the grip of desperation, in his case after a painful breakup with a girl. The film implicitly argues that if only Keller could have accessed a helpline in time, his life might have been saved.

In fact, the stigma of mental illness and the resistance to seeking therapeutic help, especially among men, present some of the greatest challenges to suicide prevention. In Utah, where a substantial amount of footage was shot, we meet veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam who are being helped with cognitive processing therapy (CPT) at a mental health facility. But it’s getting men like them to acknowledge they have a problem in the first place that’s tricky. Similarly, one fascinating, admirably nonjudgmental sequence observes politicians and advocates pushing to make Utah gun owners install lockboxes to deter the use of firearms in suicide, given that gun owners are far more likely to use the weapons on themselves than on the home intruders fetishized by NRA propaganda.

Meanwhile, photographer Dese'Rae Stage, the founder of the organization Live Through This, which helps suicide-attempt survivors, talks of her own experiences — how being outed as a lesbian traumatized her and led to her attempt to take her own life. Now happily married to Felicidad and co-parenting a child with her, Dese'Rae lives in Philadelphia and takes portraits of other survivors such as trans man Johnaton Wurzel, who works as a minister.

Trans rights activist Ashlee Marie Preston is one of several voices here speaking about suicide within their specific communities and advocating for change to assorted policies, alongside therapists and politicians, including Utah state representative Steve Eliason and Congressman Joe Kennedy.

Altogether, the film creates a reasonably balanced portrait of the diversity of people affected by suicide and the issues facing American legislators today. Arguably, more engagement with the issues around gun control and health care would have been welcome, but clearly the filmmakers wished to keep the tone as nonpartisan as possible in order to broaden its appeal.

Venue: We Are One Film Festival (online)
Production: A Project Wake Up presentation of a Paxeros production
Director: Nate Townsend

Screenwriter: Nate Townsend, Chris Jones
Producers: Chelsea Bo, Sean Drummond
Executive producers: Alex Lindley, Danny Kerth
Director of photography: Kyle Krupinski
Editor: Chris Jones
Music: Roberto Murguia
Sales: Paxeros

97 minutes