Film Review: The Last Shaman

Absurdly self-indulgent, sophomoric look at an American youth trying to save his tortured soul in the Third World.
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In the “Why should we care?” department, may I present the case of James Freeman, the profoundly troubled subject of Raz Degan's documentary The Last Shaman. This twenty-something guy suffers from acute mental depression and, one might add, a surfeit of First World problems, including a pair of intelligent and concerned, well-heeled doctor parents and a pretty girlfriend, distraught for the camera over her man’s difficult nature. Going to college—Phillips Academy—was no solution, even exacerbating his stress with the highly competitive nature of the pursuit of higher education. “I was dead by the time I was 21,” he portentously states, along with his rejection of money, success and fame, those bitch goddesses worshipped by the world in which he unfortunately finds himself.

After undergoing electro-convulsive therapy willingly but unsuccessfully, Freeman heads down to Iquitos, Peru, where, deep in the Amazon, he seeks out the fabled shamans there to cure his ills. A lot of the proposed remedy comes in the form of the highly hallucinatory ayahuasca drink, seemingly peddled everywhere in various forms in this part of the world.

Unfortunately, we never get to learn very much about Freeman—nor, from what we see, do we really want to. Degan had an opportunity to further explore his subject through his parents, investigating how they managed to raise such a troubled soul, but he muffs it by merely presenting his mother mostly peering out a window, wondering what’s happening to her wandering boy, and his estranged father who mutters stuff about past mistakes without any further elaboration. So many of James’ generation seem to be suffering from this same kind of malaise that it makes you wonder if it is somehow the result of an overabundance of approval—and lack of simple discipline—with which so many parents choose to “befriend” rather than truly nurture and guide their offspring. The rote doling out of pharmaceutical anti-depressant drugs to even the youngest children—sometimes worsening the problem—gets some predictable finger-wagging here, it should be said.

What we do get are a lot of arty directorial fillips (distorted camerawork, weird sounds), meant to suggest the state of our hero’s mind, especially after having imbibed the nasty-tasting ayahuasca, the effect of which he deems indescribable. That general vagueness is all too typical of this self-indulgent and shallow film.

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