BRIAN LINDSTROM'S Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse—a searing documentary about one of Portland's worst moments, and the gentle schizophrenic man at the middle of it—will feel like, for many, an excruciating poke around a years-old wound that's never really been allowed to heal.
That is, arguably, the point.
Nearly seven years ago, James Chasse Jr. was chased and beaten by cops, kept from the medical care that would have saved his life, and left to die in the back of a police car. Lies were whispered in the minutes and hours that followed, and years have passed without any meaningful reckoning.
And ever since, Lindstrom and the film's producers, some who knew Chasse personally, worked when they could to painstakingly assemble the most definitive—and unflinching—account of a tragedy Portland should never forget.
That investment shines through in a heart-shattering array of interviews, photographs, poetry, and music. But to his credit, Lindstrom holds off before revealing the curled fist lurking at the center of Chasse's story.
He starts by telling us who Chasse was—and how much like him all of us are. We meet the colicky baby, the increasingly precocious son and brother, and then, finally, the lover, artist, and friend—"Jim-Jim"—who became a Portland punk icon. And then we see, in his own art and words, the riptide of mental illness that snatched him under.
Chasse did resurface, after some years. But we spend what feels like only a few minutes with this new Jim-Jim, now just James, before Lindstrom pulls us down the foreboding path to Chasse's last days and their enraging aftermath.
Chasse's own moans, howls, and pleas, and the stories of the witnesses who watched him crumpled in a pool of his own blood stand against the clinical, cautious deposition testimony of the cops who beat him and then tried to make it all go away. It's a gripping tick-tock that carries us all the way through the impotent investigations and declamations that followed.
I'm not sure Lindstrom set out to demonize the cops who beat Chasse and tried to cover their misdeeds: Christopher Humphreys, Kyle Nice, and Bret Burton, who appear only in filmed deposition interviews. Or a police bureau that let all three, for a time, stay on the streets. (Humphreys went on to fire a beanbag gun at a 12-year-old girl; Burton, ironically, is now on a mental health team.) But it's difficult not to see them that way—and forget that they're James Chasse, too. That we all could be. If something doesn't change.