Tribeca Film Festival Review: Drew Xanthopoulos’ ‘The Sensitives’

We are all sensitive, and the world is not kind to sensitive people. It honks in our ears, blows exhaust in our faces and can often make us feel sad or scared for no good reason. The subjects of Drew Xanthopoulos’ intimate documentary, The Sensitives, are all ailing from a particular kind of condition created and confirmed by the cruelties of such a world: a hypersensitivity to cellular signals, chemical products and electricity. This means the cell phones, light switches and laptops most of us perceive to be commonplace are, to them, debilitating and even deadly. If exposed to such modern technologies, their bodies will fail and Xanthopoulos’ emphatic film is willing to show it.

Joe was a regular dad. He appears in a 90s home video wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Now, he spends his days and night in an empty room wallpapered with aluminum foil. One night, Joe has trouble sleeping because he “felt electric.” When his daughter comes to visit, he makes her change clothes because her sweatshirt is too fragrant. Joe wouldn’t survive were it not for his wife, Lanie. She cooks his meals, calls his doctors and keeps his vitamins stocked and ready, even when the house is dark because Joe insists on keeping the lights off. As Lanie navigates her own home with a cave dweller’s headlamp, The Sensitives raises an important question: are loved ones nurturing or enabling?

Karen lives in isolation with her two adults sons who spend their days lying side-by-side on a mattress. The only time they get off their bed-fort is when their 96-year-old grandmother arrives with groceries. They can’t touch her or hug her, but they speak to her lovingly through the plastic that covers their windows. Karen and her sons are suffering from chemical and electrical sensitivities. Like Joe, their cloistered rituals sometimes verge on paranoia. They read letters through plastic sleeves. They cover their furniture in garbage bags. They rarely, if ever, leave the house. It’s only natural to wonder if this is all in their heads.

Susie’s goals as a victim of sensitivity are the most philanthropic. She takes calls from distressed sensitives at her secluded home in Arizona, and while she can’t always help, she can provide a compassionate ear. She’s also the most willing to communicate with official organizations and media outlets, as she hopes to spread awareness of the disease and draw attention to its need for treatments. But as director Xanthopoulos wisely shows, her disease is as difficult for any outsider to understand, with the symptoms appearing like frustrating whims. When a polite radio producer arrives at Susie’s home, she is quickly informed that she smells like smoke. When they go outside, Susie still smells smoke.

What Joe, Susie, Karen and her sons have in common is isolation. One of the hardest parts of suffering, the film seems to say, is the imposition of loneliness. The pain it entails isn’t so bad as the distance it creates between the sufferer and their loved ones.

Members of the medical industry were not featured in The Sensitives, and this could be seen as one of the film’s flaws. The sensitives’ lives are largely monotonous and hermetic, so the inclusion of outside perspectives might have offered insight and sped along the slow parts. Yet the slow parts become necessary when you realize that Xanthopoulos isn’t trying to make an exposé or a 20/20 special. He’s making a portrait — a highly personal one — and his patient, impressionistic aesthetic makes him the kind of non-judgmental, anti-exploitative documentarian we need.

Xanthopoulos’ choice not to include official doctor opinions also validates and intensifies the reality of his subjects’ first-person accounts. This is not a documentary about whether or not the disease is real. Like SAFE (1995), its narrative predecessor, the film is focused on how the disease morphs the lives of those affected and their loved ones.

The Sensitives is a gentle and affecting window into the isolated prison cell that becomes a sensitive person’s life. It captures, above all, the fear that Joe, Lanie, Susie, Karen and her sons live with every day. “The unknown is so hard,” Joe says to Lanie, and she can only stand by and agree. It’s normal to want life to hurt less. We can only hope our solutions don’t bring others down with us.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.