Ask enough people what they think about psychics and clairvoyants, and you’ll probably get eye-rolls. Whether referencing the storefront tarot readers or the more seriously minded seers who perform seances and communicate with those who have transitioned into the afterlife, the impression of this spiritual trade is generally disbelief. What’s unique about director Lana Wilson’s latest documentary, which primarily highlights seven psychics living in various parts of New York City, is that it never aims to persuade you against that reaction. In this deeply moving, compassionate exploration, determining whether this small and goofy group actually has real powers is beside the point. 

In order for Look Into My Eyes to work, you need a director capable of establishing trust and understanding––mostly so the movie’s subjects know their oft-ridiculed, doubted work won’t be set up for another punchline. After a series of documentaries spent capturing intimate portraits of doctors and celebrities, Wilson feels uniquely suited to chronicle this kind of practice. Never wanting to insert herself and suck up attention, the director of After Tiller and Taylor Swift: Miss Americana has always exuded a palpable empathy, a desire to learn from the people she’s following. She also isn’t afraid to be at least a little skeptical. 

Skepticism, after all, is warranted for people who claim to speak with the dead and then collect money for it. But Wilson slowly argues that kind of cynical, transactional perspective doesn’t account for the meaningful benefits that clients receive when they enter small spaces, sit across a table, and learn a new piece of information or gain some shred of reassurance. What these people possess is an ability to, as Wilson tries clarifying, improvise in front of a stranger and share their deepest fears and anxieties in ways that will ultimately give them a little more comfort. “Is it time for me to give up on getting my bearded dragon back?” “Yes, but your former pet thanks you for all the time you spent with it.”

What’s clear is that so many clients who decide to seek out the other side for answers are in a lot of pain and hold onto things they can’t release. Though it might seem like therapy is a better tactic, it becomes evident that listening to the words of a psychic––in a one-time interaction with a stranger––often allows for a quicker, more spiritually based answer. These aren’t full-sale resolutions. They are meant to be complementary. The psychics on display often hedge in their specifics, ask clarifying questions to gain a better sense of their client, and offer up a sort of theatrical experience. In the same way we turn to art to help us gain a better sense of our own lives and relationships, Wilson’s subjects argue that they provide the same kind of experience. They make a convincing case.

It’s no surprise, then, that most of the psychics that allow Wilson into their sacred spaces are wannabe actors and musicians, with a great love for movies and theater. It’s also maybe not a surprise that many of them live alone in small, sometimes cluttered apartments, struggling to make ends meet with day jobs. Like their clients, psychics are also hurt people, many of them enduring and coping with the loss of loved ones, and who felt attuned to this calling through their own pain and journeys with trauma. Throughout their daily sessions you can see the way helping a client make sense of a death is a reflexive exercise. “Healers need the most healing,” one of them says, and Wilson leaves space to reflect on the way these house calls prove symbiotic.

There is a real beauty in the way all of this is portrayed. Wilson knows the intimacy and effectiveness of these appointments require no distractions, no sense of outside noise. Thus her camera never feels like it interferes, framing both sides of the table in darkness and with a stillness that allows each person’s stories, tears, and smiles to come through. Look Into My Eyes‘ first half highlights these emotional exchanges for extended periods, hopping between psychics and clients before Wilson unravels the inner lives, techniques, and philosophies of her subjects. After spending time with Taylor Swift and Brooke Shields (for last year’s doc Pretty Baby) and implementing a more traditional, biographical chronology with archival footage, she seems to relish creating her own narrative structure that deepens the more she spends time with each individual. 

This is not always a solemn affair. Many of Wilson’s subjects are eccentric and have their own specialties in this line of work. Phoebe, for instance, remembers when she knew she was called to speak to animals: the day she diagnosed a UTI in a friend’s cat. During one appointment, she speaks to a woman who seeks to understand why birds keep falling out of the sky around her, a humorous exchange that ends with a more meaningful dollop of encouragement and philosophy on wildlife. “Animals appreciate what makes us feel like we don’t belong in the world,” Phoebe says. It offers some temporary comfort.

There are similar beautiful moments checkered across this five-borough endeavor. Wilson says she and her crew vetted around 150 psychics before landing on their final group. She also sifted through about 100 sessions to find a diverse collection to share. Wilson eventually watches them all meet in-person to connect and potentially help heal any current issues they’re facing. It’s the definition of a safe space, and for a moment it lets these healers ease into the idea of letting themselves be healed. As one psychic explains, many people think they know all the answers and can anticipate the dark parts of their life. Instead, he says, his abilities only allow him to peek around the proverbial corner, to see a couple steps ahead. It’s a reminder that whether you classify clairvoyance as a special gift or a gimmick, it’s only as valuable as you make it. 

Look Into My Eyes premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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