‘Always, Lola’ review: Mental health and human connection take center stage in powerful drama
Corrinne Mica and Roxy Striar in Always, Lola.

According to a recent report by Mental Health America(MHA)—the leading national nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of mental health—in 2019-2020, 20.78% of adults were experiencing a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans. Yet, all too often, the state of treatment for mental health is lacking and stigmatized.

The new independent feature, Always, Lola, seemingly aims to bring this issue to the forefront in a humanizing and intimate way. Through a mixture of drama and light-hearted comedy, audiences are taken on a journey within a friend group plagued by guilt, hardship, and trauma. In the end, we are treated to a message of hope, resilience, and a call for the de-stigmatization of mental illness. It is a worthy endeavor wrapped in an entertaining package.

Written and directed by Jeffrey Crane Graham, the film tells the story of a small group of young college-bound individuals all connected through their friendship with the free-spirited and rebellious Lola. Every year the friend group gathers for Lola’s birthday at a local campground. There, they engage in geocaching (a kind of treasure-hunting game) in the forest where Lola has hidden various items representing her relationship with each of them. Things take a darker turn when tragedy strikes the group, leaving them in a state of grief as they attempt to go through with their annual tradition.

The idea of sitting through an hour and twenty-seven minutes of what, on paper, sounds like a group therapy session, may throw some viewers off initially. Fortunately for us, director Graham manages to create an inviting and vibrant atmosphere that will most likely keep the audience engaged and invested. A good chunk of that has to do with, in no small part, to the cast itself.

In a story where many of the characters are going through their trials and tribulations, it can be a real balancing act to make a majority of them interesting and likable—or even tolerable. This of course is key to a story like this. There are no outlandish plot points to distract us from the characters if they fall short. This is a character-heavy film, where if the audience doesn’t feel connected to at least one of the individuals then it will be a slog to get through. This critic is happy to report that viewers will no doubt feel a good amount of relatability to this rag-tag group of buddies.

The entire cast has compelling chemistry with one other. Roxy Striar, who plays the pivotal role of Lola, does a fine job as the heart of the film. More importantly, each of these characters represents the type of person anyone in the audience could know. What this does is highlight the fact that mental illness doesn’t have a particular look or tell.

Smaller, yet just as interesting themes, are also touched upon throughout the film. These include the influence of social media on mental health, and societal pressures put on young people to live up to certain antiquated notions of success.

Always, Lola shines a light on the issue of mental illness plaguing so many. To refer back to the MHA study: One in ten youth in the United States is experiencing depression that severely impairs their ability to function at school, work, or at home. Over half (54.7%) of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment. This totals over 28 million individuals. Nearly 42% of adults with a mental illness reported they were unable to receive necessary care because they could not afford it. 10.8% (over 5.5 million) of adults with a mental illness are uninsured.

For lack of a better word, these statistics are depressing. Yet, films like Always, Lola show us the power of cinema and story-telling in bringing relevant issues to the general public. The movie isn’t perfect—no film usually is—as there are a few comedic bits that feel misplaced and some melodramatic moments that feel a little too convenient. Those shortcomings are easy to ignore as the film shows its strength in not attempting to wrap up everything in a neat little bow at the end. It recognizes the nuance of the issue, along with the characters, and doesn’t force the most important emotional moments. This is when the film feels its most honest.

Overall, Always, Lola is a movie worth watching if you’re looking for a smaller film with a big heart. Especially one that puts a relevant topic center stage in an approachable and engrossing way.

Always, Lola will be available worldwide on digital November 28, 2023. Available platforms can be found here.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.