“Mental health awareness” fits neatly on a bumper sticker and sits awkwardly in most people’s perceptions. A wildly inappropriate number of grown-ass adults still think that anxiety disorders only require a prescription of “suck it up, buttercup.” The younger generation is doing a bang-up job with their TikTokking and Insta-twittering about neurodivergence and psychological advocacy. It is still being met with a whoopie cushion fart noise by an older generation who still remembers what whoopie cushions are. A whole lot of folks are scrunched in the middle. Folks like Courtney Barnett, the subject of the new documentary “Anonymous Club.”
Barnett is an Australian folk-ish rockstar who was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2015. Unless you think that intro paragraph above was accidentally taken from another review, you can guess that Barnett has acute “mental health awareness,” in that she is well aware she has mental health issues. What she is less sure of is how to reconcile a life in the spotlight, doing something she’s clearly amazing at, with her depression and reclusive instincts. Writer/director Danny Cohen gave Barnett a dictograph and had her record a sprawling, intimate diary that spans years. Her rambling thoughts are juxtaposed atop footage of the musician while she’s on tour and struggling through the interviews and promotion that we now require of all artists for some reason.
Film is a medium of “show don’t tell,” and “Anonymous Club” is literally all telling and no showing. The whole thing plays like a stream of consciousness meditation on the responsibilities of stardom, the imperfectness of advocates, and damn good music. Full disclosure: I attended many Lilith Fairs in several cities across several years. Barnett makes sounds that are so squarely in my wheelhouse that I could listen to her ramble existential gibberish while lightly plucking at a six-string for potentially months without feeling too antsy. In that sense, “Anonymous Club” is a delight. For me, at any rate.
What it isn’t, and what it perhaps should be, is more coherent and purposeful. It isn’t that the documentary doesn’t have a story, but it doesn’t. It isn’t that it doesn’t have a thesis: It does. But it doesn’t progress or flow. It doesn’t move from one thought to the next. It hangs out in one similar emotional and intellectual space for its full running time, asking questions without answers and ending arguably very much near the same place it started. In that sense, whether “Anonymous Club” will resonate depends on how much that description also applies to your own life.
For those who suffer anxiety, and it is very much suffering, the tune is a familiar one here, even for audiences new to Barnett’s music. It is genuine and honest. It is also guarded, with almost no biographical information provided. Her thoughts are an open book, but her life itself still has to be Wikipediaed. Maybe this was Cohen trying to be more inclusive. Maybe it was Barnett still finding a place to hide, even while starring in a documentary about her. It doesn’t ruin anything for those who can sing this particular song by heart.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Susannah Gruder at Indiewire says “if you’re not familiar with her music, or perhaps not that into it, you may emerge a fan by the end. Or at least a fan of Cohen, who, through his sensitive lens, reminds us that the music of the best singer-songwriters is inspired by their own feelings — of joy, or sorrow, love or solitude — and can transcend the boundaries between the crowd and the person singing it. Sometimes, it can even help us feel less alone.”
Sarah Ward at Concrete Playground says “‘Anonymous Club’ is about spending time and hanging out with Barnett, and about what it’s like to be Barnett; melancholy, anxiousness, claustrophobia, doubt, fears, malaise and imposter syndrome come with the territory, relatably so.”
Louisa Moore at Screen Zealots says “Being a fan is not required to get a lot out of this movie, but it’s geared towards a very specific audience.”