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A unique and empathetic look at trauma-induced mental illness, “DID I?” has something to say but doesn’t skimp on the tension and chills.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: This film contains depictions of sexual and child abuse. It deals with sensitive themes of trauma and mental illness. It also contains flashing lights which may not be suitable for photosensitive epilepsy.

Genevieve (Alexandra Pica) is a young, introverted woman struggling to make it as a writer.

It’s clear from the jump she’s feeling a little lost and struggling with issues. When we first meet her, she wakes up disoriented, makeup smeared all over her face, with strange bruises on her body.

In a session with her therapist, Rachel (Raven Wynn), we learn she’s distanced herself from her family and is avoiding calls from her very pregnant sister, Naomi. She has severe anxiety and suffers from anger blackouts.

We soon discover she’s suffering from more than just the typical mental health concerns. She has DID (dissociative identity disorder). She hears a voice inside her head, whispering to her, sometimes screaming to be let out.

It becomes evident her DID is worsening, making it harder for her to keep control of the narrative.

She’s soon flooded with memories of events she doesn’t remember participating in. And the voice inside her head has now become a full-blown physical manifestation of another personality inside her.

Her other personality, known clinically as an alter, is named Stevie.

Unlike Genevieve, Stevie is cool and confident. She’s an extroverted, extreme risk taker — to the point where Genevieve worries Stevie’s increased control over her conscious mind and body is putting Genevieve in a precarious, potentially dangerous situation.

As Stevie’s new role in the driver’s seat further complicates Genevieve’s personal and professional life, the past she’s worked so hard to suppress — and the source of her trauma —threatens to rear its ugly head and bring Genevieve’s defensive walls crashing down.

Writer-director Sarah Tice (who also produced and shot the film while completing her MFA in Feature Film Production at the University of Central Florida) employs some clever lighting and visual effects to signal Genevieve’s fractured mental state and her internal struggle for personality dominance.

Visual cues like a stereoscopic 3D glitch effect, strobing red lights, and a cracked screen and mirrors may be simple, cost-effective tricks, but they are quite effective.

Produced for under $10k, a microscopic budget even by indie film standards, Tice cleverly uses these digital video and post-production technologies to create an immersive cinematic experience in spite of minimal resources. And while it’s still apparent this is a low-budget affair, the budgetary constraints are never enough to take you out of the film.

Much of that is owed to a layered, incredibly compelling performance from Pica, who plays both Genevieve and Stevie.

She does a phenomenal job convincingly playing two wildly different characters while making viewers understand and empathize with the depth of her pain, fear, and repressed trauma.

DID I? did a phenomenal job subverting my expectations.

As a fan of horror and psychological thrillers, I’m so used to seeing mental health issues — especially DID — used as a basis for a character committing horrible acts due to mental instability. Characters with DID are almost always portrayed as “crazy” to the point of being dangerous and even evil. They are unhinged, unstable, and untrustworthy.

Rarely is any effort made to make them sympathetic or to allow them to be the protagonist of the story.

DID I? is told from the POV of the person suffering from the disorder.

Though it’s not a traditional horror film with overt scares, there are certainly dark and deeply disturbing elements. Further, it does explore the nature of evil. However, the source of the evil does not come from where you expect it to, making it considerably more compelling and devastating.

After a slow, deliberate build-up in the first half hour, the final hour of the film is absolutely riveting, becoming a twisty mystery thriller.

Tice keeps you enthralled and on the edge of your seat, trying to make sense of Genevieve’s progressively haunting and unsettling visions.

It becomes evident Genevieve has forgotten some horrible, triggering event in her past. And as viewers, we are anxious to learn just what secrets she’s buried deep inside the recesses of her mind.

However, this is definitely the case of being careful what you wish for.

Once you know what kind of horror is at the root of her mental illness, you’ll wish you could immediately join Genevieve in forgetting it.

That’s not a criticism. It’s effectively horrific and traumatizing, and I was impressed by Tice’s ability to deliver such an unexpected gut punch in the film’s emotional climax.

Even if this was a swing and a miss, it’s such a bold and meaningful swing that I’d still give significant credit to Tice.

I applaud her commitment to doing something different and challenging the often-harmful narrative surrounding mental illness.

However, it’s not a miss; she manages to mostly knock it out of the park.

DID is not a genetic condition or one stemming from aberrant brain chemistry. It’s caused by extreme trauma experienced at a young age. Alters are created as a defense mechanism to help the victim survive the trauma and attempt to function in society.

Given that, it’s unsettling how often filmmakers exploit the illness and use it as a foundation for villainy and dangerous psychosis.

While that may make compelling horror, it does a severe disservice to the real-life victims — including those suffering from DID or from any serious trauma-related illness.

Tice reroutes the blame to the real evil, the foundational source of that great trauma. And it’s not just refreshing; it’s absolutely chilling.

Kudos to Tice for a stellar feature film debut, for creatively and intelligently maximizing a minuscule budget, and, most importantly, for adding something meaningful to a vital conversation.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3.5
DID I? recently made its World Premiere at The Florida Film Festival.

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