Clairevoyant (2021)

“I think that feeling the need to express your spirituality comes form a place of deep-rooted longing, and feeling like you need validation, and needing to be loved by others, and need to show instead of do, with quiet confidence. Like me.”

So says Claire (co-writer/co-director Micaela Wittman) directly to the camera of heard-but-not-seen Earl (co-writer/co-director Arthur De Larroche), hired to document Claire’s journey to enlightenment. This is some way into the mockumentary Clairevoyant, and her words betray what has been evident from the start: that Claire’s keenness to embrace spirituality is offset by a only the most superficial understanding of what that might even mean. Claire may intend for her film to promote the path to Nirvana, but really it is a portrait of her own flaws, failings and follies, while along the way satirising a muddled, often manipulative industry of New Age faddists who prey upon the impressionably wide-eyed Claires of this world for whom spirituality is just another passing fashion. As it skewering this series of self-help swindlers, Wittman and De Larroche’s feature is a little like Staten Cousins Roe’s A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life (2019), only without the actual spree murders.

A pampered college dropout desperate for a sense of purpose, Claire has discovered her spiritual side in a yoga class, and is convinced that she must find (and have herself recorded finding) her higher self, even if she is less clear about what spirituality is and means, and dismissive of any form it takes which might require a respect for historical tradition or indeed a commitment to lifelong effort. Claire is also alarmingly insulated, even idiotic, painfully confusing South Asian Indians with Native Americans, yoga with Buddhism, Koreans with Chinese, and Chinese with Japanese, in her pick-and-mix approach to the world of the psyche – and leaving a trail of comedic cringe in the wake of her shallow cultural appropriations. Some of the mentors, gurus and spiritual guides whom she encounters and interviews along the way are merely perplexed by her vapidity, while the more venal ones are only too happy to take advantage of her open heart and wallet. 

Both Claire’s affluent LA lifestyle and her adventures in filmmaking are bankrolled by her absent father. “He supports me in no way,” she insists to Earl, “except financially.” It is an absurd line, underlining Claire’s cluelessness about her privilege – but it also gives away the root of Claire’s problem: her yearning for attention and love, indeed for validation, which evidently she has never been able to get from daddy (with whom she only ever communicates over FaceTime). This is key to Clairevoyant – for while Claire’s abject stupidity and occasional, entirely unwitting offensiveness make her the central butt of the film’s ridicule, she is just vulnerable and fragile enough to retain our sympathies too. This effect is greatly helped by Wittman’s performance, playing Claire like a drugged-up Winona Ryder – simultaneously a mesmerisingly out-of-control train wreck, and a little girl lost, in clear need of care and help (but perhaps not self-help), no matter how much she may make us laugh. Claire never really has an epiphany as such – but when we catch up with her six months after the film’s principal events, it is evident that she has genuinely been on a journey, and now looks a lot healthier, happier and more self-aware than at any other point in her movie. So, mission accomplished, and bliss (of sorts) unlocked. She has learnt a lesson, and come of age.

Spiritual quests typically reduce the trials and tribulations of everyday life – the longing and loss, the ecstatic peaks and depressed troughs – to metaphor. Certainly Clairevoyant hits all these beats, but it also, in a metacinematic turn, figures the long journey of its own making. Claire’s big dream, which she describes in an agonisingly awkward scene to her long-suffering ‘stay-at-home’ mother Eliza (Amy Benedict), is that an army of acolytes “would pay to watch my documentary, like on Amazon Prime or somewhere like that… Or on Netflix. I would sell it to Netflix.” This is, of course, every newbie independent filmmaker’s dream, and while Whitman and De Larroche are not, like Claire, documentarians, nonetheless their ultra-low budget, do-it-yourself story is certainly a trip worth taking, and merits a following all of its own. For there is happiness to be found here.

strap: Micaela Wittman and Arthur De Larroche’s mockumentary tracks a vapid young woman on a spiritual journey within – even if there may be nothing there.

© Anton Bitel