Sally Pacholok is a painfully earnest, feature-length medical procedural about the problems with confirmation bias. The dialogue is full of bad jokes and medical jargon. Director Elissa Leonard can frame a shot, but does so without any sense of drama or imagination, so the actors are stuck in a film that would be more at home on the Lifetime Network, not a film festival.
Annet Mehrendru stars as Sally, a Michigan-area nurse who starts a crusade against the hospital that employers her after she learns that her undiagnosed fatigue is a result of a vitamin B12 deficiency. You may recognize Mehrendru from the FX series The Americans, where she plays Nina, a Soviet woman who falls for an American FBI Agent after she betrays her country. Whereas the Nina character is complex, full of inner turmoil and disgust, Sally only has the shrill righteous indignation of Lisa Simpson, minus the irony.
The film follows Sally as fights the hospital’s bureaucracy, arguing that doctors should consider B12 deficiency as the source of several problem patients. This is Leonard’s debut as writer and director, and it shows: there are painful early scenes where Mehrendru argues with other actors with words they do not understand. I realize that medical jargon is a way to preserve verisimilitude, a hallmark of medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy and even Scrubs, except the cast cannot sell their supposed expertise. At its worst, parts of the film resemble a dramatized infomercial.
Sally gets the dubious nickname “Sally B12,” but soon she finds a doctor who champions her cause. The same doctor convinces Sally to blog about her findings (since the film is set in the 90s and early 2000s, there are tedious jokes about Sally’s inability to understand the internet). This leads to Sally publishing a book about B12, as well as a legal battle with her employer.
The worst thing about Sally Pacholok¸ the thing that makes it borderline irresponsible, is its one-sided perspective. Leonard positions Sally as a soothsaying pioneer, ignoring the major ethical lapse in her behavior: as a nurse, she has no business whatsoever to recommend treatments to patients – quite literally, they are not hers – yet the film shows her doing just that. Sally has overwhelming confirmation bias – if it was true for her, then it must be true for everyone – and the film flippantly dismisses the medical expertise of doctors. She may be right about some patients, but that does not give her the right to ignore the hospital’s chain of command.
The film that ends with Sally testifying in court, yet does not reveal the outcome of the trial. Over a cloying cover of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” title cards instead note that, “patients consider [Pacholok’s book] the bible of B12 deficiency.” The key word is “patients,” since the film ignores the consensus of the medical community. In a blog post about B12 from Harvard Medical School, the author notes the negative effects of the deficiency and ends with a word of caution:
The Internet is full of articles lauding the use of vitamin B12 to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and other chronic conditions or reverse infertility, fatigue, eczema, and a long list of other health problems. Most are based on poor or faulty evidence.
Take Alzhemier’s disease as an example. “Although there is a relationship between low vitamin B12 levels and cognitive decline, clinical studies—including those involving people with Alzheimer’s disease—have not shown improvement in cognitive function, even doses of the vitamin as high as 1000 micrograms,” says Dr. Bistrian.
For now, it’s best to get enough vitamin B12 to prevent a deficiency, and not look to it as a remedy for what ails you.
Sally Pacholok presents B12 deficiency as a catch-all for all sorts of medical problems, including some from the above quote. The film is so slight and inoffensive that there’s no way it can be dangerous, although I cannot help but think that those clinging to Sally’s book are given a sense of false hope.