“Mindfulness,” scoffs one of the characters in Brown’s Canyon, a funny, kindly-observed take on the stuck-together-for-a-weekend story. And indeed, what does “mindfulness” even mean? Is it, as the comedian Marc Maron suggests, a relatively recent fabrication of contemporary yuppie hipster culture, a concept which only started to exist just a few years ago?
Allison and Stephie, the leaders of a wellness retreat in a beautiful house in idyllic Brown’s Canyon, are all about practicing mindfulness as it relates to their particular careers. For Allison, a life coach, mindfulness is about acknowledging “blessings” and asking provocative questions which get at the heart and soul of a person. For Stephie, a yoga practitioner, mindfulness is about enjoying prolonged silences, mindful eating, and being present in her yoga practice. Quickly, their mindfulness is shattered by a series of minor catastrophes. Allison and Stephie cannot agree on the retreat format. Allison’s husband Thom and his jovial friend Billy drop in unexpectedly, swiftly disrupting the gyno-centricity of the weekend, as observed by the fifth of the group, Pat, an introvert photographer (sharply played by Sara Thiessen). A mudslide washes out the only road to the house and so the intended (female) participants of this wellness retreat, Allison and Stephi’s clients, do not turn up, leaving these five stuck together. They are not just stuck together in the wilderness with no way out; they are also left to fend for themselves as their secrets, problems, and past traumas and mistakes surface. Financial insecurity, alcoholism, infidelity, divorce, infertility, and all the woes of modern life threaten to overshadow a weekend of disconnecting from modern life and returning to a mindful self. The wellness retreat becomes a grievance summit.
And so, mindfulness is swiftly discarded: alcohol is drunk, spoiled food is eaten, accusations are leveled, confidences shattered, and hearts broken. For a while, no-one acknowledges the blessing of being in the beautiful wilderness with the people they love. They can only see each other through the prism of their personal griefs, exposed by the prolonged proximity to each other. Everyone has their say. After the anger, the vitriol and the truth come out, it frees them to say what they really want to say: that they love each other and that they also suffer, often as a result of that love. And so another type of mindfulness unfolds: being truthful with oneself leads to more genuine mindfulness of the other.
The film could have easily become an ineffectual dramedy about the first-world problems of a privileged few (though the parody of wellness jargon is particularly insightful and sharp). But Brown’s Canyon is made meaningful by a funny, warm, natural-sounding screenplay, buoyed by the collaborative storytelling by the actors who grace the film. There are also real moments of love and gratitude, where the characters can be just who they are, truly in the present and letting go of the past.
Brown’s Canyon, dir. John Helde, 95 min. A Try This Films Production, in association with Bash. 2017.
Playing at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, 19-20 January 2018.