Late one evening in June 2014, Ryan Candice — the kind of person everyone felt was their best friend, the sort of guy so special even his own brothers readily admit he is their parents’ favorite — walked into a hospital and told them he was suffering from suicidal thoughts. Candice’s state didn’t appear to merit more care, however, and he was sent home. Hours later, he committed suicide. The shockwaves of Candice’s death rippled throughout his community, family, and friends, eventually inspiring a group of loved ones to create their own nonprofit organization to raise awareness of the United States’ growing suicide epidemic.
The result of that lofty ideal is a smart one: a wide-ranging documentary that doesn’t center any one group’s experience with suicide and mental illness. Nate Townsend’s “Wake Up: Stories from the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention” is really four films in one, but that seems more like a feature, not a bug, of a documentary that strives to draw connections between seemingly disparate groups. Still, at just 88 minutes, the film barely scratches the surface of a massive problem, and will likely send attentive viewers to seek out further information and education.
But that’s a good thing, because while “Wake Up: Stories from the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention” is a slim, if deeply well-meaning endeavor, it will likely spark some necessary conversations. That those conversations need to go far beyond simply watching a film is a problem not unique to this film (or in this moment), but Townsend manages to effectively disseminate important knowledge in an economical and sensitive way.
While Candice’s death inspired his loved ones to create Project Wake Up — and the film was funded by donations the nonprofit has been gathering since late 2014 — Townsend’s film takes a wide view of the various groups dealing with heightened rates of suicide, many of them quite unlike Candice himself. That’s necessary and eye-opening, and Townsend and his team do excellent work giving equal time and weight to each section of the film, though it can’t help but feel segmented.
Bolstered by a deep assortment of talking heads (from suicide survivors to people who have lost loved ones to educators and politicians, a slew of perspectives are on display here) and genuinely shocking research (did you know that it’s estimated that 50 percent of trans individuals in the U.S. have attempted suicide?), “Wake Up” presents slice of life stories from four vulnerable groups: American veterans, members of the LGBT community, university students, and gun owners.
That such an assemblage sounds disparate is part of the film’s power. Suicide touches all parts of society, and even the kind of people you might assume are not susceptible are perhaps suffering the most. Townsend’s film neatly skips between each group, and while similarities and bonds emerge among them, it’s still hard to shake the sense that each of these stories, all of these stories, is so very deserving of a deeper look. For now, at least, this will have to do.
In its final act, Townsend and company offer something else necessary: hope. While the failure of numerous systems to help those in need (the VA, in particular, has rejected many ailing veterans because of outdated rules on who can qualify for medical assistance) becomes more obvious and pressing as the documentary winds on, Townsend takes pains to also show the people and groups who are attempting to help, on both personal and national levels. The change is incremental, but it’s real, and after seeing just how many people have been affected by the tragedy of suicide, “Wake Up” provides a strong reason to be roused.
“Wake Up: Stories from the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention” premieres as part of the We Are One Film Festival on Thursday, June 4.