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Turning pain into art

Northwestern alumna Alex Heller spotlights mental illness in her first award winning feature film ‘The Year Between’
Northwestern alumna Alex Heller wrote, directed and starred in the film “The Year Between,” based on true events and her own struggles with mental illness. Coming off screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival, Heller now brings the film to Northwestern’s Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts.

The stressors of college can be difficult to manage. Dealing with a mental illness like bipolar disorder can make navigating college life nearly impossible. 

It was a situation Alex Heller faced when she started at Northwestern in 2011. During the spring, she left school and moved back to her parents’ home in the southwest Chicago suburbs to focus on her mental health.

“I was immediately thrown into trying different medications, weathering their side effects, and learning how to mend relationships with the people around me,” Heller said. “I started to become aware of the chaos that I had caused in my life and embarked on a journey to fix it.”

Heller did return to Northwestern and graduated from the radio/television/film (RTVF) program in 2015. It took several years, but she found a way to turn her pain into art by writing her first feature film. 

“The Year Between,” inspired by Heller’s own mental health challenges, is “semi-autobiographical,” Heller said. Fresh off sold-out screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and the Chicago International Film Festival, where the film was honored with an Audience Choice Award, Heller is now bringing the film to Northwestern’s new Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts (PPSL).

“The Year Between” is the story of a college sophomore who is forced back home after having a mental breakdown. The film’s website describes it as a “poignant, powerful and entertaining story of an individual and family managing the sweet highs and raw lows of adjusting to a new normal.” The story is based on true events — Heller’s mental illness journey, alongside the story of her best friend and many others.

Heller wrote the first draft during her senior year in Brett Neveu’s screenwriting class. She also directs the film and plays the main character, Clemence Miller — a role she initially had no intention of playing.

“I just wanted to be creative and truthful and talk about something that’s hard for me to talk about,” Heller said. “After I completed the screenplay, it didn’t see the light of day for a while. I was still at a place mentally where I wasn’t ready to link myself to the script.”

Post-graduation, like many young filmmakers, Heller encountered plenty of “no’s” before finally getting a “yes.” Undeterred, she kept rewriting and pitching. The turning point came in 2020 when Heller became a fellow in the prestigious Sundance Institute Feature Film Program. The rewards of networking and all those rewrites were realized, and the project finally started taking off.

“I built my entire life around making this project,” she said. “If it was the same script I had in the beginning, there’s no way this film would have been made. Every character in this movie is based on someone who has entered my life and made a significant impact on the evolution of my mental health.”

While “The Year Between” puts the spotlight on a serious mental health issue, the story is told through a comedic lens. Heller said comedy helps make the film more accessible, normalizes the topic, and widens the scope of what mental illness can look like.

“I never want to disrespect the struggle of living with or treating bipolar disorder. It has always been important to me to tell a story about mental illness that contains authentic levity and humor, because laughing through the darkest times has gotten me through them,” Heller said.

Free film screening and Q&A

Oct
27
2022

“The Year Between”

7 p.m. Oct. 27, Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, (RSVP encouraged)

It will be a full circle moment when Heller returns to Northwestern on Oct. 27 to screen her film as part of this year’s PPSL programming. The lab creates, supports and examines original narrative screenwriting, television writing and media making centered on mental health.

“It’s so meaningful to welcome Alex back to campus with her film,” said David Tolchinsky, the founding director of PPSL and RTVF professor. “I love that Alex’s film shines a light on bipolar disorder and helps further reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, which is also one of the goals of PPSL.”

“This film is not a PSA on how to treat mental illness,” Heller said. “I don’t intend for the message to be ‘look at how I did it or this character.’ I hope viewers who might be struggling with a mental illness will be inspired to find what treatment works best for them.”