For My Sister Skillfully Navigates Mental Illness Stigma

For My Sister, the formally ambitious micro-budget debut feature from Miami-based filmmaker Gabriel Rhenals, tackles the stigma related to mental illness with aplomb. Rhenals (who wrote, directed, shot, and edited the picture) navigates emotionally dense terrain with a gentle hand and light touch, providing a film that is both socially useful and surprisingly fun.

Shot entirely a Samsung Galaxy S9+, For My Sister begins in a near future where the Revue company uses time traveling nano-drones to capture video of its clients’ recent past. Rhenals uses this premise to present the story of Evie (Stephanie Maltez), who attempts to aid her sister Tris (Cristina De Fatima), who is suffering from a major depressive episode. Fearing the stigma related to mental illness, Evie endures a series of tenderly humorous episodes, pretending she is the suffering party while attempting to avoid permanent documentation of a mental illness diagnosis.

The framing device allows the film to jump chronologically through efficient, snappy scenes. The blend of narrative efficiency, compelling plot complications, and sound comic timing are the film’s resounding strengths, and make it easy to watch. Maltez plays Evie with just enough nervous energy to convey an older sibling’s overprotective concern, one conditioned by family tragedy related to depression. Where supporting performances range from quite good to simply functional, Maltez’s strong work is the hinge that allows the script’s movements between pathos and humor to swing smoothly without ever feeling exploitive or corny.

Technical aspects are better than you might expect for a film shot on a phone, though those in search of camera porn will want to turn elsewhere. Rhenals shows a good eye for camera placement and the editing is crisp. The film features spare location shooting with natural or available lighting and is strongest with static framing, though the phone’s camera sometimes struggles with light levels on dynamic shots. The audio is clear and adequate. The movie’s focus, however, is appropriately on the narrative, and Rhenals has done an outstanding job of matching script to resources in order to keep our attention there.

For My Sister is a powerful demonstration of what an organized independent filmmaker with energy and vision can achieve with limited resources. As such, it is not only a neded spur to change attitudes about mental illness, but also an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers.

Check out trailers here.

For My Sister will play at the FIU campus on Wednesday, October 9 in GC 140. Doors at 6:30, and film starts at 7:00. Sponsored by the film studies program, the Film Initiateve, and the FIU chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the event is free and open to the public.


Andrew Strycharski directs the film studies program at Florida International University