Just as it might be said that every anti-war film is unavoidably still a call to arms, every documentary that promises an unvarnished look into the private life of a mega-famous pop star is unavoidably still a mouthpiece for its subject’s personal brand. And yet, a small handful of them are sincere and curious enough to also become something more at the same time. “Miss Americana” leveraged Taylor Swift’s celebrity into an arena-sized portrait of self-doubt in the digital age, while “The World’s a Little Blurry” swirled Billie Eilish’s meteoric stardom into a richly perceptive coming-of-age epic. Both of those movies were raw and revealing in a way that allowed them to feel unfiltered, even if the goal of commissioning them was to reclaim the narrative for their respective subjects.
Now it’s Selena Gomez’s turn, and after her public struggles with lupus, bi-polar disorder, and Justin Bieber, it’s no surprise that she can bare her soul with the best of them. Directed by Alek Keshishian — who all but invented this entire sub-genre with “Madonna: Truth or Dare” more than 30 years ago — “Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me” follows a similar template as its predecessors, and primarily serves as a chance for the cherubic “Love You to Love Me” singer to set the record straight on the various issues that strangers have used to define her.
The film may not be much of an ad for any particular album or tour (it spends more time on Gomez’s philanthropy than it does her music, and doesn’t even mention “Only Murders in the Building”), but it does a great job of selling you on Gomez’s person, on her humanity, and on the generosity of her spirit.
Where “My Mind & Me” differs from other documentaries like it, however, is in its unresolved messiness. In part, that’s because the basic premise of the project blew up on the launchpad when the “Revival” tour that Keshishian had been hired to shoot in 2016 was canceled after 55 performances due to Gomez’s depression and its underlying causes. To the credit of the filmmaker and his subject alike, Keshishian returned to the project once Gomez got back on her feet, and his film papers over the time gaps with powerful bursts of talking head testimony from the singer’s loved ones (mostly about reckoning with her illnesses and getting her the treatment she needed).
The movie that “My Mind & Me” ultimately became isn’t a tour doc at all, but rather an unguarded glimpse at how Gomez rebuilt herself after her own breakdown. Where Swift and Eilish’s docs traced narratively satisfying trajectories — their stories dressing old wounds in new triumphs — Gomez’s is (elegantly) cobbled together from spare parts, its nominal tension derived from a shared fear that the center won’t hold. It’s not a movie about healing so much as a movie about learning to hurt in the healthiest way possible. And if its diaristic, inside-out approach has the strange effect of keeping us at a distance (obscuring the details of Gomez’s distress behind Insta-poetry like “How do I learn how to breathe my own breath?,” and whispered Malickian prayers like “Why have I become so far from the light?”), it also invites its most vulnerable young viewers to appreciate that even their favorite superstar is still fighting to be closer to herself.
That being said, “My Mind & Me” makes clear that Gomez is mighty conflicted over the youngness of her audience, and the perma-youth that her Disney past and teenage demo have draped over her in return. Gomez is a 30-year-old woman who’s been grappling with thoroughly adult problems for quite some time. It’s fascinating to watch her dance around the disconnect of her self-image when she vetoes a stage outfit for making her look like a 12-year-old boy or mopes over a photoshoot look that made her feel like she was back on “The Wizards of Waverly Place” (“I fucking look like a witch,” she winces, “doing the wand again”).
It’s even more so in the moments when that dynamic is clear but unspoken; there’s nothing particularly immature about the crisis of confidence she has before the first of those 2016 tour dates — who wouldn’t freak out in that situation? — but the support she gets from her team suggests a parent soothing their child more than a record label propping up its star client. How is anyone supposed to grow in an environment that makes it so hard for them to breathe their own breath?
After the “Revival” tour dies on the vine and the next few years of Gomez’s life slip off the tracks that have been so carefully plotted for them, “My Mind & Me” splinters into a more kaleidoscopic movie that looks at its subject through one fragment at a time. On their own, none of these pieces might seem particularly unusual in a pop-doc like this. We hear Gomez rail against the vanity of Hollywood life and watch her get fast food with her best friend. We see her go back to her childhood elementary school in Texas; she’s too humble to make a scene when they won’t let her in because she doesn’t have any ID, but inevitably receives a hero’s welcome. We tag along on a trip she takes to Kenya as part of her philanthropic work with the WE Charity, and listen in as she consoles young girls who are struggling with their own self-worth (and even willing to share their own experiences with suicidal ideation). She can be short with her entourage here and there, but such moments are obligatory in a doc so determined to convince you that its subject is a real person.
Gomez’s career is the context for everything, but it seldom comes up. “My Mind & Me” spends much, much more time in doctors’ offices than it does in recording studios, and while the singer’s wealth isn’t exactly a secret, the film eschews the benefits of stardom without belaboring its burdens. Keshishian doesn’t ask us to pity Gomez, but he also shies away from celebrity friends and spurious extravagance; he knows that doing press doesn’t amount to a day in the coal mines, but he also tees up the most soul-deadening montage of promotional interviews you’ll find in any music doc this side of Radiohead’s “Meeting People Is Easy.” It’s hard to blame pop singers for making their own movies when the press keep treating them like products and asking them questions like “what’s your favorite color?” It’s telling that Gomez is less bothered by people asking her dumb questions than she is by people not caring about her answers to good ones.
One such answer stands out above the others. Asked what she might do next, Gomez suggests that her stage and screen career is just a runaway for the philanthropy she hopes to do with the rest of her life. If Keshishian’s film is a bit too scattered for us to feel like we have a full understanding of who Gomez really is — its nakedly personal and yet purposefully vague at the same time, its unwillingness to touch on any tabloid subjects both a blessing and a curse — I came away from it convinced that Gomez is a real one to the core, and that she feels the need to help others as intensely as she feels the need to help herself. If “My Mind & Me” is a commercial under the guise of a confession, at least Gomez is selling herself for the capital to invest back into the community.
“My Mind & Me” recognizes that an entire movie about Gomez’s charitable efforts may have been too self-aggrandizing, just as a greater focus on Gomez’s work with the Rare Impact Fund (which is only mentioned in the end titles) might have implied too great a victory for a doc more interested in honoring its subject’s continued survival. Keshishian doesn’t offer the clearest alternative to that approach, but his film’s semi-unformed disarray — most obvious in the drifting final third — ultimately adds to the sense that Gomez is still just holding on for dear life, even if her grip has improved a great deal over the last few years. And if she’ll never be entirely free of the fear of slipping, at least she isn’t afraid of acknowledging that.
When an ambulance siren screams past her Paris hotel room at one point, Gomez just deadpans: “There’s my ride.” And then she smiles and keeps going.
“Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me” premiered at AFI FEST 2022. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, November 4.