What One (Bad) Review of My Movie Taught Me About Myself

Sophie Brooks, writer-director of The Boy Downstairs, on dealing with a particular kind of negative criticism, and the lesson she took from it.

I recently read a particularly negative review of my movie The Boy Downstairs. I probably shouldn’t be drawing attention to this kind of review since my movie only just came out and I’d like people to go see it (and there are plenty of positive reviews too, I promise!), but for the sake of this article, hear me out.

The review in question wasn’t merely a negative review. A negative film review can be critical of the film’s craft or address narrative issues without getting too personal. That kind of review can be hard to read, but I respect the opinion of the writer. The review that makes me shake my head in quiet desperation is the one that moves beyond criticism and seems to become downright mean. The writer might make assumptions or generalizations about me and my collaborators as people, or judge us based on superficial values that have nothing to do with the film or the story it’s telling. He or she will imagine a history of creative intentions and present them as truths.

Here’s the thing: film criticism isn’t the problem. There is, of course, great merit to intelligent criticism, both within the industry and in our culture at large. A positive review can call attention to a great film flying under the radar; a negative one can save a viewer (whose opinions generally align with the critics) from wasting their money and time at a movie they won’t enjoy on a Friday night. But what I’ve come to realize, as I experience my first feature being released at the same time as I finish a new script, is that for me, reading my own reviews – and risking stumbling across that kind of review – does more harm than good.

Here’s a short list of thoughts I had right before reading the review:
1. I can totally handle this. No matter what it says.
2. It’s just one person’s opinion, it won’t affect me.
3. Maybe they loved it. That would be cool.

Here’s a short list of thoughts I had immediately after reading the review:
1. LOL. This is funny.
2. This guy’s dumb. Whatever.

Here’s a short list of thoughts I had about 10 minutes later:
1. Oh no.
2. Am I talentless?
3. I’ll never work again.
4. Does everyone know I’m an imposter!?
5. Oh no.

I’ll admit it, I turn into a crazy person. I spiral into a dark hole. I contemplate calling the critic and explaining why I did that thing or why it happened that way. Defending myself, condemning myself. Napping. Spiraling more. Proclaiming to my mom: He just doesn’t get me!

It’s weird — I’m someone who openly welcomes criticism from friends and collaborators when I’m writing or editing, but reviews have challenged my identity as a filmmaker in a new and surprising way. The truth is, I think we all fantasize about that perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, however far-fetched it seems.

As the days pass, the sting lessens and perspective on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it comes back to me. I’ll say things like, “To each their own,” or “It just wasn’t his cup of tea.” I remember the great experiences I’ve had screening my film at festivals and recently attending the opening night screenings in front of an actual audience in a theater. But still, my ability to flash back to the harshest of comments seems to come with ease.

The new script I’m finishing has been circulating in my head for the past five years, and now I’ve suddenly become fixated on the potential criticism I might receive for it. I’m worried that a critic might rip me apart for not being their definition of funny or sincere or brave or honest. I’ve had moments where I was actually afraid of writing.

But then I took a step back and realized something: this mental torment was a hell of my own making, and I could escape it.

I can’t let reviews make me so self-conscious that I feel stunted in my work. I can’t anticipate what people are going to like or not. In order to do the work, in order to get better, I must resist overthinking and instead listen to my gut and the people around me over an imaginary review of a script I haven’t even finished, let alone made into a movie. All I can do is try to grow as a filmmaker while remaining loyal to my inner voice. Because that loyalty is really all I can control.

Here’s a short list of why I’ve decided I will no longer seek out reviews, good or bad:
1. Every negative criticism I’ve read that I agree with, is one I already had of myself before someone else did.
2. The mean stuff serves me in no way. It just messes with my head.
3. Someone’s always going to tell me if there’s a really nice review of my film (usually my mom).

I’m never going to please everybody, and I have to be OK with that.

As they say, ignorance is bliss. Or, at least, it’s sanity.

Sophie Brooks grew up in London and Los Angeles and went on to get her BFA in Film and TV Production from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her first short film, Malcolm, won 2nd place at NYU’s New Visions and Voices Festival. She followed this up with Maple Leaves, which premiered at The Palm Spring International Short Film Festival in 2014. Her latest film, The Boy Downstairs, is currently in select theatres and available on VOD.