Look Into My Eyes Review: The Mediums Are the Message

Hot Docs 2024

8 mins read

Look Into My Eyes
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Lana Wilson
Programme: Special Presentations


“My question to you is: Is she okay?” a nurse asks in the opening scene of Look Into My Eyes. It’s an instant hook of a question that follows a truly heartbreaking story about a young girl killed in a drive by shooting. Moreover, the person to whom the nurse poses her query is offscreen. The effect means that one can simply listen and look directly at the nurse who recalls her story with anguish. We’re drawn in, eager to hear about the girl’s fate.

The shot cuts to another pensive inquirer, in another room, and in another location asking a query about a loved one. The tension shifts while an air of concern lingers palpably. There’s an absence, a hunger, which the concerned party seeks to bridge.

Once again, one can’t see to whom the seeker speaks. The sequence of questions brings more seekers with queries of love and loss: birth parents, a lost child, a partner. Someone asks about their dog. Another, a bearded dragon they regretfully gave away.

When Look Into My Eyes finally adds the reverse shots to the conversations, director Lana Wilson (The Departure, Miss Americana) introduces a series of psychics and mediums. They commune with lost souls, offering guidance and closure to clients in search of answers. However, the Miss Cleo “call me now!” variety of physics these are not.

Look Into My Eyes invites audiences to abandon their preconceptions and enter the intimate space that psychics provide. The film follows a handful of seekers who get a reading. In some cases, they’re clients who found the psychics, while others are part of an open casting in which the production invited participants to get a free reading.

But these aren’t $5 reading psychics, either, nor does Wilson find people who fit the stereotype of turban-wearing mystics gazing into crystal balls with beads hanging from every corner and incense wafting through the air. A few people have some crystals on the table, but otherwise, these are modest set-ups with neither smoke nor mirrors. This is human connection alone, a simple and complex force that drives the intense emotional conversations that Wilson observes.

Wilson also follows the lives of the psychics as they tell their own stories. She visits mediums in their homes and observes the apartments of regular New Yorkers. Stacks of crap abound with DVDs, records, and CDs piled like leaning towers of physical media. (In the Hot Docs post- screening Q&A, Wilson clarified that the characters aren’t hoarders. They’re simply New Yorkers.) These people have troubles of their own and they’ve all grown by talking their way through catharsis.

Among the mediums is Per Erik Borja, a sensitive reader who develops a calm rapport with his clients. He draws upon experiences of alienation and queerness to convey the strength that he finds communing with people beyond his immediate physical circle. Meanwhile, Nikenya Hall absorbs the stories of her visitors with dramatic gusto. She senses out their vibes and aura, doing something of a physical engagement with the energy in the room. Her eyes pop as she offers her readings, illustrating one of the commonalities that Wilson finds in her mediums. Many of them are actors and they accentuate their readings with theatrical force.

Sherrie Lynne, for example, has a former life as a stage performer. She carries that art into her next act as a psychic at parties. Ditto Eugene Grygo, who writes scripts and hones his vocals by while doing readings here and there. Michael Kim auditions and reads scripts when he isn’t reading the room. An encounter with a former classmate, also a struggling actor, might be the kicker that leaves a viewer fully convinced in the mediums’ ability to commune with the dead.

Phoebe Hoffman, alternatively, recalls the inspiration she found while watching movies on the IFC Channel. However, while searching for personal connection, she enlisted in a group activity to learn how to be an animal psychic and discovered that she had a real gift. She now talks with the animals, offering comfort to people whose four-legged friends have passed, or dislike being on a leash. Then there’s Ilka Pinheiro, who makes the briefest appearance in the film but leaves the strongest impression. She communes with a young man descended from slaves who worries about the price listed for his great-great-great-great grandfather. She tells him to free himself of his ancestor’s shackles.

These pensive observational vignettes demand attention and a commitment to active listening. Wilson deftly explores the lost art of human connection in our increasingly isolated and overly virtual age. It’s a fine companion to last year’s hidden gem A Still Small Voice, which explored healing and the weight of guidance with equal sensitivity. Face to face connection is a lost art, and there’s something genuinely cathartic about watching these souls and mediums make contact. With nary a music cue until the final frames and an intricate sound design with some reverb here and there, the film commands one to open one’s ears.

In doing so, Wilson doesn’t really aim to convince people one way or another that psychic practices are legit. She includes some gaffes and fumbles, like when mediums seem to pivot their stories based on respondents’ answers, or when one finds alternative energy in the room and opens the query up to the group with wonder that someone else’s spirit-friend has entered the chat. But shot intuitively by Stephen Maing (who directed Union with Brett Story), the film’s unobtrusive style lets these stories and readings unfold with little interference.

What’s clear, however, are the responses. Whether one assumes the mediums are charlatans, nimble improve actors, and the real deal, the reactions they elicit from their inquirers are tangibly real. There’s great emotional authenticity to these conversations, which circles back to the film’s revelatory emphasis on attentive listening. Sometimes, people just need to be heard.

Look Into My Eyes screened at Hot Docs 2024.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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