A Different Brain deals with a diverse group of people from different parts of Britain who have all suffered damage to the brain in one form or another. These accidents have impacted their lives enormously, leaving them not as incoherent and unconscious vegetables, but as individuals who are very far from their former selves. This is one of Theroux’s later documentaries and reflects the general feeling of the majority of his recent work. If one tracks the BBC2 journalist’s filmmaking history from the beginning, a compelling pattern emerges and allows fans of Theroux to understand his career with a greater level of clarity.
From his earliest works with Michael Moore on TV Nation, in which we do not yet see his true style emerge, to his bizarre Weird Weekends in which he deals hilariously with gurus and bodybuilders, to the extreme, outrageous and often violent and dangerous subjects that really cemented his reputation in the middle stages of his career. But post-2010, Louis’ style seems to have changed and now possesses a greater amount of softness and gentleness, and we see him (back in Britain for the most part) connecting with people who are struggling in much more genuine ways than say, the people in Louis and the Nazis, or the gambling addicts he gets to know in Vegas. These are people with autism, alcohol dependency, souls who are just as “on the fringe of society” as his earlier subjects, and yet realer and more relatable than anyone he has ever documented.
Read at Unsung Films: Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.
Perhaps A Different Brain is the pinnacle of Theroux’s adventures into the lives of these struggling individuals; viewers are let in not only on the sufferers, but also into the lives of the sufferers’ families – In A Different Brain, it is hard to behold the loyal resignation of Rob Barnard, the husband of 38-year-old Amanda, who fell off a horse and suffered brain damage, losing her “squidgy side”… which more or less means she lost her ability to connect warmly with Rob or their two children. Combined with physical impairments, this means that their marriage has turned into a deeply non-intimate nurse-patient relationship. In another case, Louis gets to know a young man called Earl who was involved in a car accident. As Earl struggles through each day accompanied by obscure demands and new obsessions, his mother admits to Louis that he has been unrecognisable since his accident; that she sees nothing of her son behind his eyes.
Another woman he meets is Natalie Smith, a former art student and current resident in a specialist unit. What makes her story unusual and interesting is that her condition is not the result of an accident. As is revealed by a nurse, Natalie had attempted suicide at the age of 32, which led to moderate damage to her brain. Ironically, apart from a few quiet moments, the 48-year-old that Louis befriends appears altogether happier and more jovial than the woman whose portrait is painted by friends and members of the family, and the woman whose pictures are shown, in which Natalie is taken standing somewhat ominously in a wedding dress, or looking into the camera while her friends are having fun around her.
All of Louis’s subjects in A Different Brain have retained the most basic characteristics of their former selves and each individual condition reveals itself in quieter, subtler ways. In the case of Earl, an incessant and eternal irritability (predominantly with his mother, with whom he shares, as Louis notes, a strong and unbreakable relationship nonetheless) to Dan Park, a man who lost a quarter of his brain as a boy and fails to comprehend the feelings of the people around him.
As Louis Theroux spends time with these people, the rapport he builds (so much a trademark of his style) seems closer and more understanding than ever, because his relationship with his subjects is strangely and suitably lacking in the polite mockery and subtle sarcasm that made his earlier films what they were. A Different Brain is a strong example of what the journalist consistently strives for in all of his works – to dig deep into the hearts and minds of people who we wouldn’t otherwise associate ourselves with, either out of fear or obliviousness, unless we were put into a situation where we absolutely had to, like the peripheral characters who orbit Louis’s subjects in this outstanding documentary.