Arts & Culture News

No Letting Go, a Film About Bipolar Disorder, Made Dallas Actress Cheryl Allison a Mental Health Advocate

Randi Silverman didn’t know if her son Tim would make it to adulthood. At just 9 years old, he was so anxious that he said he didn’t want to live and resisted leaving their house in Westchester, New York. Without any known trauma to explain his behavior, Silverman turned to doctor after doctor for an answer. The Silverman family’s journey to find a diagnosis and effective treatment is now the subject of a film, No Letting Go, starring Dallas native Cheryl Allison as Silverman. Both women were recently in town to promote the film, which they hope will call attention to the issue of mental health literacy, and particularly the presentation of mental illness in young children.

Silverman did eventually get her answer: Her child was bipolar. But it came after many years, more than 50 medications with unpleasant side effects and several trips to the psychiatric hospital. Without blood tests or brain scans that detect mental illness, Silverman said it takes an average of nine years between the first symptoms and a diagnosis. With a disorder like bipolar, which causes 50 percent of its sufferers to attempt suicide, that is critical time lost. “By the time [Tim’s] diagnosis came, he was so ill,” Silverman said. She wants to use No Letting Go, which she also wrote, to help start a national conversation about mental health and shorten that gap.

No Letting Go spawned from Jonathan Bucari's Illness, a 2013 short film about bipolar disorder which Allison also starred in. Allison, who attended Dallas’ Skyline High School and Texas Woman’s University, moved to New York City after graduating to pursue stage acting, where she also earned parts in soap operas like As the World Turns and the reboot of Dallas. While acting in a production of Camelot, Allison met producer Carina Rush, who was working on Illness and invited her to audition for the part of the mother.

Meanwhile, Rush had brought on Silverman, a friend, as a consultant to the film, since she was already knee deep into mental health advocacy by that point. For the short film, Silverman's role was limited to offering tweaks to lines here or there, based on what resonated with her experience raising a child with bipolar disorder. But Silverman said that after Illness was released, the most common reaction they heard was, “We wish it was a feature film.”

That was all the inspiration she needed to sit down and begin mining her life for a full-length movie script.
Many of the scenes are exact replicas of events in her and her son’s lives.“I just started writing, and scenes and dialogue just came out of me,” she said.  Her hopes for the film were initially quite modest. “I thought, ‘It will end up being an educational piece at worst,’” she said. No Letting Go was shot just a little more than a year after the short film, in the summer of 2014. 

As much as the film seeks to portray the plight of the bipolar sufferer, it also depicts the struggles of the sufferer's family and friends. It shows Silverman desperately trying to convince teachers and counselors that her son's behavioral issues are not simply the result of bad parenting. "They would say, 'Oh, you're just comparing him to your other children,' or, 'You need to be tougher. You need help.'" Since the film's release, she said many parents have told her they will use it as a tool to explain the disease. They have said, 'Maybe I can show this to people and it can be my voice,'" she said. 

When unanticipated hurdles threatened to kill the movie, Silverman repeatedly rescued it. After the location fell through, she offered up her house for filming. When the actor cast as Tim dropped out, she had another bold idea: Her youngest son, 12-year-old Noah, was in a regional production of Oliver at the time. He could act. Why not bring him on to play his brother? It only took one look at a photo for casting agents to agree to the proposition; because Silverman and Allison bear some resemblance, he could easily be mistaken for Allison's son. Did Silverman worry about putting her family on display for the world to see? "I would never have done this film if my children weren't supportive of it," she said.
With the two leads played by relative unknowns, producers were concerned that without some big names, they wouldn't be able to get distribution. But to the filmmakers' surprise, several well-known actors learned of and approached the film of their own accord. One such actor was Alysia Reiner — known for playing the prison warden in Orange Is the New Black — who said the film's cause was dear to her heart because of her own experience with a loved one who had had a bipolar episode. (Reiner plays Silverman's best friend in the film.) Actors Janet Hubert, Richard Burgi and Kathy Najimi also offered their talent for minimal pay.

When the film started hitting festivals, Silverman's expectations for its artistic validity proved unnecessarily modest. It has won several awards, like Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Screenplay at England's South Hampton Film Festival. Her estimation that it would end up being an educational tool, however, was spot on. The Huffington Post called it a "master class" on the psychiatric condition and Silverman said several graduate psychology professors already have plans to integrate it into their curriculum. They're waiting to see about wider distribution, but No Letting Go is already available through many video on demand outlets.

Some people have asked Silverman why she didn't set out to make a documentary instead. She said they felt a feature would play to a wider audience: "Sharing stories and being open about your own is the way to change things." The audiences at the film festivals they've visited have responded strongly to the personal story, she said, often engaging in intense discussion about their own experiences with mental illness after screenings. Because one in five people are mentally ill, Silverman said everyone can identify with some aspect of film.

Tim Silverman came from an affluent family but even with access to the best resources, his journey was no less hard. "{Mental illness] doesn't discriminate," Randi Silverman said. Recognizing the universality of the issue, she started a support group in Westchester and said 800 families have come through in five years. She has also established a nonprofit, Youth Mental Health Project, which visits communities to discuss the mental health crises unique to their areas. "Mental illness is the biggest public health crisis we have," she said. 

When the topic of school shootings and other acts of violence that have been committed by the mentally ill is brought up, Silverman emphasizes that those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crimes. However, she does think early intervention will also help to reduce the frequency of those crimes. "It's not just a safety issue," she said. "We have to help them before it becomes so acute that they're dangerous." 

Tim Silverman’s story came to a much happier end than many others. His mother recalls the moment she first saw a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's a symbolic one. Tim had refused to have his hair cut for some time, but after a year in residential treatment he allowed it. As the long locks shading his face were cut away, Silverman felt new hope for her son’s future. And rightly so. Despite missing two years of school, he went on to graduate high school on time (he's now 19). His mother says that when he watched the film, he was quite moved. "He said, 'I had really forgotten so much. I never saw the other side. I have such a different perspective now,'" she said. 

For Dallas' own Cheryl Allison, this "micro-budget" project is already one of her most significant film parts to date, but even if the positive reception to her performance leads to more high-profile roles down the road, this one will continue to be the most personal to her. “I don’t think I’ll ever have another role that will be as important to me because I have become an advocate,” Allison said.

No Letting Go is available now, through video on demand services like Amazon Instant, Google Play, ITunes, Vimeo, or through your cable provider.
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Caroline Pritchard studied English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and in 2012 returned to her hometown of Dallas, where she spends her free time seeking out new places to roller skate and play pinball.
Contact: Caroline North