‘Alien Boy’ review: The untimely end of James Chasse

By Jamie S. Rich, The Oregonian, Feb. 21, 2013

James Chasse as a boy.
James Chasse as a boy.

Chances are most Portlanders remember hearing about the night James Chasse died, even if they don’t remember his name or the exact circumstances.

In September 2006, Chasse died in police custody after sustaining injuries during his arrest. The 42-year-old man, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, was chased down and tackled by officers downtown in the Pearl District. The cops defended their use of force as being in line with department standards. Bystanders, including one who snapped pictures with his phone, had a different story to tell.

“Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” is the result of six years of work by Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom. The documentary sets out to separate and explore the different versions of the tragic events.

Lindstrom frames the material as a clinical procedural, sifting through testimony and looking at the evidence. Though the arresting officers declined to take part, they are represented via videotaped depositions. Much of what they have to say doesn’t add up, and a lot of what we see and hear is stomach turning. Yet “Alien Boy” attempts to be fair. The judgments come from without, rather than within.

Lindstrom lets the facts shine a light on the faults within the system that allowed these civil servants to forget they were dealing with a human being and not a stereotype or statistic. In the process, the director also restores James Chasse’s identity, reminding us that he was more than a headline, but also a son and a friend.

“Alien Boy” is enraging and heartbreaking. While it answers a lot of questions about the circumstances of that terrible night, it raises many others about how we view the mentally ill in our country and, perhaps more specifically, how even a city like Portland can turn a blind eye to so much suffering. Lindstrom’s film never preaches, but it does provoke. Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater looking at the streets outside differently than when you went in.

Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
Review grade: A
Cast and crew: Directed by Brian Lindstrom
Running time: 91 min.
Rated: Not rated
Playing at: Cinema 21, Sunday through Thursday
The lowdown: A provocative, heartbreaking documentary about a mentally ill Portland man who died in police custody in 2006, the film seeks to find the truth about what happened while also examining the life of the victim.