PTSD is something of a war movie cliché, and yet it’s genuinely problematic to depict. I interviewed America Ferrara a few years ago about her film The Dry Land, and she said that the very war veterans that she wanted to see the film found it hard to watch because it evoked the specific condition that they suffered from. Tulia Lugacy takes a relatively untrodden path for her film, This Is Not a War Story, which takes place in a Brooklyn veterans group, but has no flashbacks or fragments of battle to reflect on; Lugacy keeps her focus to the here and now.
Lugacy herself plays central character Isabelle Casale, a veteran Marine who takes part in an unusual art project in the New York warehouse; a group of ex-soldiers are recycling their uniforms and making them into art by reforming the fabric as paper. Documenting this venture provides a semi-documentary look, and establishes veracity. Casale forms a bond with Will (Sam Adegoke) one of the group leaders, but her attachment proves complicated; each of these ex-soldiers has issues to face in terms of adjusting to today’s society.
Skirting the usual clichés, and railing against traditional Hollywood war movies, This is Not a War Story takes a while to heat up, but the slow and steady approach proves rewarding. There’s a telling little scene in which Casale talks to Will about smoking, and tries to justify her unhealthy habit as a sop to her mental health; only once she’s gone do we see Will light up his own. It’s unbearable to see Casale manhandled by a street-gang as she heads to her local transit station, but in general, Lugacy shirks scenes of physical menace, and manages to capture a far more subtle story of two people struggling to connect with the world, and shrug off survivor’s guilt.
Produced by Rosario Dawson, putting her on-going Mandalorian stardom to good use, This is Not a War Story is a sobering piece that rewards a careful viewing; the heroism portrayed here is finding a way to get through the day. But for those interested in PTSD and it’s treatment, Lugacy provides plenty of food for thought about how veterans might find their voice within today’s communities. If nothing else, Lugacy’s own performance is remarkable, slowly dropping layers of protection and her own emotional shielding to try and connect with another human being. As we approach Remembrance Day (Nov 11, Veterans Day in the US), films like this help us remember the dead, without forgetting the living.
This is Not a War Story is in select US theatres and streaming now on HBO MAX in the US.