The world of Yoga is probably something I’ll never understand. As an overweight middle-aged man, that isn’t a controversial statement. I have a lot of respect for the philosophy of Yoga as well as the physical artistry of its practice. However, I don’t think I’ll ever achieve enlightenment beyond cinematic analysis. Enter Alex Henes and Matthew Merenda’s debut feature film, Mind Body Spirit, a found footage film that tests the flexibility of its lead character Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) in every disorienting and uncomfortable position.
When we first meet Anya, she’s doing her best to convince us she has what it takes to become the Kim Kardashian of the yoga world. Setting her mat up in front of a semi-circle of large windows, she’s found the perfect place to launch her brand and market herself to the world. See, Anya’s on a strange adventure. Her estranged late grandmother left her this house, and she’s spent every dime she had moving to it, and that feeling of empowerment has inspired her to try her hand at becoming a yoga influencer. During her introductory session, as she attempts to work out her imposter syndrome as much as anything else, she tumbles (literally) upon a hidden door in the house and an attic full of her grandmother’s secrets. Among them, a book seemingly proposes a journey inferring the titular joining of mind, body, and spirit. Soon, Anya begins to suspect something sinister is afoot in her grandmother Verasha’s (Kristi Noory) old house.
There are some notably good themes in Mind Body Spirit involving identity, traditional customs, and understanding history. Given recent reactionary measures to how history should be taught in schools, the plotline where Anya’s mother (Anna Knigge) keeps an abundance of knowledge regarding Anya’s grandmother from her out of fear that she’ll walk down the same path feels timely. As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Anya becomes inundated with the alluring prospect that her grandmother was a healer, feeling a kismet connection when finding and performing the lessons in her book. That connection plays a huge part in helping Anya find her voice as an aspiring influencer, becoming even more notable as she spends an increasing amount of time with Kenzi (Madi Bready).
Kenzi is an idyllic fitness instructor, highly motivated and used to the spotlight, and is trying to mold Anya in her image –a prospect that makes Anya increasingly uncomfortable. As Anya’s path toward spiritual enlightenment through her grandmother’s journals ramps up, it enlivens her animosity toward Kenzi. It has Anya asking herself if Kenzi is really the person she wants to be, all the while adhering to her late grandmother’s guide instead.
The look of Mind Body Spirit, its colors and contrasts, is where the film breaks apart from the rest of the genre. It’s very bright for the most part, but even the dark portions are colored for a warmer shadowy effect than we’re used to seeing. There are a few colder tones, including the one setup on the film’s poster, which shows Anya bent over backward in one of the yoga practices in Verasha’s book. These bodily transfigurations help to push a body horror narrative, but the film stays more psychologically motivated, occasionally grazing the adjoining concept.
Found footage may be the creepiest subgenre in horror because it blends reality with foreboding supernatural terrors in a way other films can’t. In Mind Body Spirit, Henes and Merenda use the common tropes but add the influencer element to have the audience assume the camera’s role, being spoken to directly and, on occasion, taken for roller coaster rides by the ghostly presence inhabiting the house. That entity makes itself known early and often, which helps the film deviate away from the audience’s expectations at first. It gives away a hidden attic, a typical third-act reveal, and garnishes the movie with multiple moments of the haunting specter being caught on camera.
And therein lies the issue with the film. For all of the surprises Mind Body Spirit sets up, including the huge first-act revelation, the movie doesn’t deviate much from the course it’s on. Regardless of where you are on your horror film journey, a seasoned veteran or amateur viewer, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots to where the movie is headed and how it will turn out for Anya.
Mind Body Spirit resonates with Paranormal Activity vibes, from the rotating camera work to the simple creepy freak-outs of what the camera catches. There’s also a lovingly decorated altar adorned with candles that feels like a throwback to the fortune teller in The Collingswood Story. This makes Mind Body Spirit an easy watch for fans of those films. Yet, many will see holes in the film’s plot, like why Anya never views the footage she’s collecting, and further question why the film doesn’t occasionally pivot when it falls into familiar territory. While easily digestible, it can also be somewhat frustrating.
I think Mind Body Spirit is a solid effort from these budding directors. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the film has some technically noteworthy parts, especially the cinematography and Sarah J. Bartholomew’s performance. Anya’s moods shift wildly throughout the film, and Bartholomew not only keeps up but excels at developing her character and persuading the audience to care about what happens to her. However, the overuse of Verasha’s ghost in the film and the on-the-rails plot leave much to be desired from the filmmakers’ first feature effort.
Mind Body Spirit will play Chattanooga Film Festival at 12:45 PM on June 23. Attendance is in-person only, and the movie will be screened at The Read House. Tickets can be purchased through the Chattanooga Film Festival website.