It’s a destabilizing thing, coming across a movie that seems to hold up a character you viscerally dislike, and realizing this is only because he’s so much like yourself, coming across a movie that reflects an ugly part of you with an unwavering gaze. Mitchell Stafiej’s The Diabetic is such a film. Deceptively simple in its execution, The Diabetic is a slice of life picture that burrows under your skin, is almost repulsive, because even as it holds up a character almost every audience member might be able to find within themselves, it asks us to pass judgment on him, ultimately asking us to judge ourselves.
The film begins with a city-dwelling, 30-something-year-old Alek (James Watts), who has type 1 diabetes, returning for a weekend to the suburb he spent his teenage years in on Montreal’s West Island. The film takes place over the course of a Saturday night. Alek has called up all his friends from high school asking them out for drinks, but only Matt (Travis Cannon) takes up Alek’s offer. Alek obviously doesn’t like Matt, but desperate for company, takes him along for the night. Matt follows Alek as he drunkenly stumbles through the suburb, chasing his next drink and old memories, wondering how anyone could choose to stay in such a town.
Stafiej shot the film in HI-8 and then converted it to 16 mm, which filters Alek’s night and gradual collapse through a grainy and frenetic gaze. Stafiej’s lens and framing work to almost turn this movie into a horror, the shaky camerawork and soft focus work to deeply unnerve audiences, as they lend Alek’s unhinged actions a sinister glean. As the night wears on, Alek does increasingly grating things, such as embarrassing himself as he begs a gas station attendant to sell him booze, visits his high school sweetheart, and jumps into a stranger’s pool. Alek’s weird behavior wouldn’t be so weird were it not for his meanness — as he hurls insults at everyone in the town for being there, he also berates Matt, even his high school girlfriend (not to her face), and is generally creepy and unpleasant as he paints a self-aggrandizing image of his life as a screenwriter in the city, all as he stumbles and slurs from the alcohol. It seems Alek wants to forget for the night that he is an adult, that he has diabetes.
Stafiej’s framing makes it so we’re afraid of what Alek will do next. While he is relatively sober he remembers to take his insulin shots, but as he abandons himself, he forgets his diabetes. We worry for Alek even as we fear his anger. Because what is really fueling Alek’s behavior during the night is an unspoken self hatred that Matt sees, which is why he chooses to stay with Alek, almost chaperoning him. Alek’s self hatred fuels his nostalgia trip and is what makes him so familiar — ideas of getting older, of being sick, of being seen as broken, deeply trouble Alek, and this unspoken but grotesquely-felt layer is what renders this film a reality check.
Even as we hurl through the night through the grainy lens alongside Alek, enmeshed within his point of view, we get stable glimpses of him through Matt’s sympathetic gaze, looking over his shoulder at Alek. The Diabetic is eerie for this reason, for the way it has us wonder whether we’re also this pathetic when we ask people to be with us, when we’re desperately trying to avoid loneliness, when we ask for attention.
Watts delivers a simultaneously loathsome and lovable character, which is all to say a deeply human character, and Cannon’s Matt truly charms as he reckons with a man who might or might not want to destroy himself. This is a captivating and irksome film that excavates those unsavory aspects that lie in all of us, those self-destructive tendencies masquerading as nostalgia, that desire to undo our present by looking at the past, wondering where and how it all went wrong. Stafiej has a deft grasp not only of how this thinking within us winds and constricts, but also of how to effectively convey this deeply convoluted aspect of ourselves, and The Diabetic is a compelling achievement.
The Diabetic, through Alek, asks us whether we too might be this messy and repugnant when we’re sad or drunk, and herein lies the film’s horror. Stafiej has always been good at depicting human frailty and loneliness through the veneer of a subtle and old-school horror — consider the lonely and Lynchian A (2017) — and The Diabetic is no exception. As it follows Alek desperately trying to lose himself over the course of a night, it also shows us the horror we might make of ourselves as we try to do the same, night after night, weekend after weekend. The Diabetic will break your heart for its familiar desperation.