Sarah Elizabeth Mintz is a writer/director working in New York and Los Angeles. She received her BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she completed her thesis film Transit, starring Dakota Johnson. After graduating she assisted filmmakers Alejandro Iñárritu on The Revenant, Joachim Trier on Louder Than Bombs, and Cary Fukunaga on True Detective. Sarah was a Sundance Fellow in the 2017 Writer’s Intensive with her feature Good Girl Jane. She directed a proof-of-concept short film of the same name, which garnered interest and financing for the feature. Good Girl Jane recently premiered in U.S. Narrative Competition at Tribeca Film Festival 2022 and won the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature as well as Best Performance in a Narrative Feature for Rain Spencer. The film is written by Mintz and is inspired by events in her own life. Sarah is interested in stories that explore the complexities of human nature and the beauty that lies in gray areas that are often overlooked.
Last week, I moved to Brooklyn. I had been living in Los Angeles for the past seven years, anxiously waiting to return to New York, and now I’ve finally done it. I’d like to say I’m thrilled, and in a way I am, but mostly I feel nothing at all. This eery lack of feeling is a phenomenon I’ve experienced on and off for longer than I can remember. It’s not so much that I have no feeling, as it is a very sporadic and limited scope of feeling. I have the pleasure of experiencing terrible anxiety or deep fear, most commonly followed by total numbness. I do feel happiness and passion, of course; it happens, but rarely, and never when I really want it to. These happy sensations are usually delayed, mostly when I’m alone, and frankly, not frequent enough. When something momentous happens in my life, like right now, it often plays out in a scattered pattern of the aforementioned emotions. At this specific moment, I’m also enjoying the fun dull ache of a tension headache that’s been with me the better part of a month. Then again, that is really just another symptom of my anxiety, isn’t it?
I’ve spent most of the past week stressing about writing this very article. What will I write? Can I even write? A question I ask myself anytime I’m faced with a deadline. The issue is, I have zero control over when, or how well, or what it is I will write about. The unknown doesn’t sit very well with me at all. On lucky days, I find I can string a few honest words together. The vast majority of days, I don’t even try. Some days, I muster the courage for a real effort and find that I genuinely can’t write a damn thing — those days are slasher film-style horrifying. I hate those days and avoid them at all costs. (More on that later.)
The truth is, I am a writer. I can say this because I have written. It feels stupid to type this, but I know I’ve done it before, because a film I wrote (and also directed!), Good Girl Jane, is premiering at Tribeca Film Festival on June 11. It is a coming-of-age drama. It’s one of those movies about a young person who learns a little about the world and about themselves, and then ventures off into adulthood, slightly better equipped than they were at the start. I wrote the whole thing and it is inspired by my actual life. Do I remember writing it? No. I remember chewing copious amounts of fruity gum. I remember the mildew smell of the shack office in my mother’s backyard. I remember couch-surfing for seven years. I remember rejection letters and quitting smoking (a few times). I remember anxiety. Always. I remember a fucking epic, should-be-illegal kind of euphoria, briefly, toward the end of production on the film. But I don’t really remember writing the movie. This is not a memory issue. It’s a feelings issue. It’s a Sarah-can’t-just-“be-here-now” issue. It’s a coming-of-age issue.
Being “here now” has always been a struggle for me. It’s my whole thing. A kind of pseudo-identity that provides comfort in consistency. When I was a teenager, I was addicted to drugs, namely crystal meth, cocaine, nicotine, caffeine and a 21-year-old drug dealer — let’s call him “Jamie.” Even then, I had a love-hate relationship with my substance abuse. I think that’s common. On the one hand, it was an incredibly self-destructive habit which isolated me from my family and peers and made me feel physically ill. On the other hand (and this is the kicker), it created the glorious, yet temporary, illusion that I was much more present in my life. Being high, whether on drugs or on boys, was the only way I knew how to feel anything other than anxiety, pain, fear or shame. Once those pesky roadblocks were removed, I could tell jokes and listen when people spoke and I could dance and get dressed in the morning. Drugs allowed me to enter the life I imagined everyone else was already living — I was no longer on the outside looking in. No longer distracted, or detached. It was a mind-blowing relief to finally be able to engage with my present, instead of suffering through it or shorting out and going numb.
I stopped using hard drugs at 16 and now, at 32, I am a caffeine-free vegan living in Park Slope. Call me “the picture of adulthood.” This morning I walked my German Shepherd mix, Suki, to Prospect Park and lent a jogger my spare poop bag. In the afternoon, I assembled indoor cycling shoes after completing a HIIT workout on YouTube and then purchased allergen-free laundry detergent at Duane Reade. My mom called me on the walk back home from the store and we talked for an hour about … actually, I have no idea. At 6 p.m., I sipped a glass of chilled biodynamic wine while listening to Ray Lamontagne and stir-frying bok choy with tempeh and leftover quinoa. Over my second glass of wine, I considered downloading a dating app and buying a pack of American Spirits, but I chickened out after Googling them and discovering that even the organic ones are still not great for you. Also, I didn’t want my neighbors to judge me for the smoke leaking into their garden. It is possible I will read a hardcover book tonight, but it is even more possible I will watch Emma Chamberlain vlogs on the internet instead. I will wake up tomorrow and I won’t remember today. I wasn’t really here for it. I’m still 15. I’m still numb.
It’s obvious to me why people check out. Personally, I do it out of habit. I don’t remember starting the cycle, but I was probably very young and, honestly, it’s a pretty aces idea. In theory, it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant to feel absolutely nothing than to endure a whole lot of misery. But missing out on all of the really bad stuff, in turn, means you miss out on all of the really good stuff, too. Drugs were not my answer to this problem. They really do kill you and destroy your life. After multiple health scares, a few dead friends and a very embarrassing and humbling arrest outside of a 7-Eleven in Encino, I decided to rethink my strategy. But something I find profoundly frustrating, and oft undiscussed, is that unfortunately, sobriety was not my answer, either. I’m not dead (that is, admittedly, a big win!), but I still have a major problem on my hands — I am not living the life I fought so hard to keep. Here I am in Brooklyn, as a grown-ass “adult,” still feeling nothing for fear of feeling anything. Right now, I’m inadvertently quoting Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name. A wise man with very wise words. My desperate point here is this: In a matter of days, I will walk down the red carpet with my cast and crew for my very first feature film and I would really, really like to “be there” when it happens.
For God’s sake, Sarah, you wrote a coming-of-age drama. You can do this. You can grow up.
So, what does that look like for me? Probably something like this:
I might smoke a few cigarettes at the premiere party and my sister might not like that. I might say something fucking dumb, fall on stage, cry a lot (I hope!) or get panned. I might still have this really fun headache that I can’t seem to get rid of, but I won’t take a Percocet (even though I keep thinking about it) because that is drugs and I try not to do those anymore. I have until the premiere to learn to lose control. To take a chance on this life and to let go of my familiar numbing routine.
Today (and yesterday!) I wrote this article and I remember doing it. It’s been uncomfortable and tedious to shape this thing and I’ve had to pee a lot of times while sitting here. I’ve deleted whole sections of text that weren’t working, and I’m super anxious about sending a draft to my mom because of all the talk of my vices. My fingers are sticky from the Fiji apple I just ate and there’s an irritating flap of skin on my lip that I can’t quite rip with my teeth. I am here right now and I’m determined to keep it that way. I can spend at least five minutes here tomorrow and the next day and continue on after that until it’s no longer just five minutes, but a whole hour, a whole afternoon even.
Maybe I’ll let Suki off leash in Prospect Park tomorrow morning? That will be nerve-racking. I wonder what my stomach will feel like when I let her go? I care about her so much and I know it would be excruciating if anything were to ever happen to her, but I do everything I can to keep her safe and that’s all I have to offer us both. I am brave and I allow myself to love her despite the risk of it all. Last week, I moved us both to Brooklyn, together, so we could enjoy the damn park. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Featured image by James Bery shows Sarah Elizabeth Mintz, Diego Chiat, Odessa A’zion, Olan Prenatt, Jules Lorenzo and Rain Spencer on the set of Good Girl Jane. All images courtesy Sarah Elizabeth Mintz.