By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
There’s a moment in Pure O when the main character Cooper dismisses his counselor’s suggestion that he has symptoms consistent with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis. Cooper remarks that he can’t have OCD as he doesn’t obsessively wash his hands and thinks that he is struggling with depression. As the audience accompanies Cooper on this journey of diagnosis and recovery from a mental health condition so grossly misunderstood, it’s difficult to not be simultaneously captivated by the main character’s journey and enlightened by how informative and eye-opening the film is.
Pure O is a narrative feature premiering at 2023 SXSW Film Festival from director/writer Dillon Tucker. Inspired by experiences from Tucker’s actual life, Pure O follows a young man named Cooper whose life is silently derailed by a particularly troubling form of OCD called Pure Obsessional. As he comes to grips with the diagnosis and begins treatment for it, Cooper also must uphold responsibilities as a fiancé and drug rehab center counselor.
In making Pure O, director/writer Dillon Tucker tackles a difficult task. How does one craft a film about mental health that evokes genuine emotion and empathy for its main characters, while not lecturing to the audience like a TED Talk? It’s an extremely delicate balance to strike, but one that Tucker carefully achieves. Pure O provides a deeply personal and accurate chronicle of living with OCD like few, if any, films and television shows have done before. Characters in the likes of As Good as it Gets, Monk, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory are said to have OCD, but these stories misrepresent what OCD is in one or another. Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin in As Good as it Gets, for instance, demonstrates a more stereotypical view of OCD as he compulsively flips locks on a door, avoids cracks in the sidewalk, and washes his hand repetitively. While this may reflect some individuals’ struggles with OCD, the film goes awry in its representation of the disorder by conflating an OCD diagnosis with some of Melvin’s mean and narcissistic traits. Pure O, on the other hand, is a decidedly different film, one that is genuine in its attempt to educate audiences about what OCD is (and is not). Through group therapy sessions to silent moments struggling in isolation, Pure O shines a light on the debilitating effects of OCD in a way that will likely forever change one’s perception of this misunderstood condition. And yet, the film never comes across as if it is preaching to the audience.
Tucker’s experimentation with tone in Pure O intelligently subverts expectations and adds a different, nuanced layer to his film’s educational value for OCD. The film opens with a scene in which the main character Cooper is sitting by himself in his car in the dead of night. Cooper is listening to a horrifying tape of himself speaking about how he kills his fiancé. The flash-forward scene is given important context later in the film as Cooper learns more about the condition, but, in beginning the film in such a manner, Tucker plays with stigma about OCD and mental health more broadly. The film opens with a bleak tone, consistent with the lead character Cooper’s incorrect impression that he is struggling with depression. But Pure O isn’t a movie about depression and, as such, doesn’t lean into the bleakness of tone that a film about depression would afford. Instead, the tone feels grounded, never shying away from the horrors of OCD while also having moments of levity and humor that subtly counteract stigmas conflating OCD with other conditions like depression or anxiety.
Pure O also benefits from an extremely authentic filmmaking approach, furthered by the decision to cast actors and non-actors in various roles. This integration of professional actors and actual people with OCD or mental health professionals specializing in OCD lends an authenticity to Pure O that few other films capture. At times, a line here or there may come off more awkwardly than intended, but, overwhelmingly, the mix of actors and non-actors works in the film’s favor and makes for a more immersive viewing experience. On the acting front, much of the film hinges on the lead character Cooper, played by actor Daniel Dorr. Dorr features in virtually every moment of the movie and, without such a captivating and subtly emotive performance, Pure O simply wouldn’t work. Dorr portrays the silent struggles of OCD with profound depth and nuance. There are various moments in the movie where Dorr’s character Cooper is outwardly in a good mood, but, internally, struggling to cope with this crippling disease. This is something seldom captured by films about mental illness – the masks that people wear to hide their internal struggles from the world – and one that Pure O excels in conveying.
Supporting Dorr is Hope Lauren, who plays Cooper’s fiance Emily. Further adding to the film’s naturalism, Dorr and Lauren are an actual couple in real life. The film portrays the highs and lows of Cooper and Emily’s relationship with a sense of realism that is definitely bolstered by the unique pairing of a real life couple in the lead roles. Lauren is accompanied by various other actors, who play characters ranging from mental health counselors to drug rehabilitation patients. In firmly focusing on Cooper for the entirety of the film, while also highlighting the emotions of those in his life, Pure O conveys the extent to which a given individual’s struggles with mental health can profoundly affect those around them. In this sense, there is plenty of universal messaging in Pure O to appeal to people beyond the OCD community, as there are a number of themes that will likely resonate more generally.
Pure O is an early contender for film of the year. A movie that is as informative as it is captivating, the new film premiering at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival chronicles the effects of mental health difficulties in a way few films have done before. Achieving a unique authenticity with its mix of actors and non-actors, in addition to drawing upon experiences from the writer/director’s actual life, Pure O will immerse audiences as they follow the difficulties of the lead character’s journey.