Mental illness is a heavy, sometimes scary subject. Considering the impact these conditions have on the patient and their loved ones can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary. The more we understand the mentally ill, recovery becomes possible. Movies can be a useful and entertaining way to do this. If made correctly, a film can accurately portray the progression, warning signs, and discovery of a specific psychological pathology.
As a loud and proud advocate of awareness and outreach, any movie that tackles this subject with conviction and emotional gravity becomes near and dear to my heart. While this is in no way a complete list, I wish to highlight some of my favorites across many genres. I focused on fairly recent works to draw positive attention to how our understanding of mental illness has already progressed. Hopefully, this will inspire others to experience the ones they haven't and even perceive ones they have in a new light. A few of these films are hard to talk about without spoiling some of the plot, so spoiler alert!
It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)- Anxiety/Depression
Based on the book of the same name by Ned Vizzini, this rom-com is downright lovable. We meet protagonist, Craig Gilner (Kier Gilchrist), as he contemplates suicide atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Realizing the severity of his feelings, he checks himself into the psychiatric ward of his local hospital. Mixed in with adults due to renovations, he discovers himself with a little help from his new neighbors. During his one week stay, he comes to terms with how his depression and anxiety affect his daily life and learns to define himself by his own standard instead of the standards of his peers.
What I love most about this movie is its endearing and light tone. Keeping optimism and humor at the forefront of the plot makes for a story of triumph. This message is one many sufferers of the same issues need an abundance of in times of darkness.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)- Bipolar Disorder/Borderline Personality
Realizing how serious your condition is isn't easy. For Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), it required institutionalization. The lovable rom-com based on the book by Matthew Quick takes place in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After an extensive stay in a psychiatric hospital under court order, Pat returns to his childhood home to rebuild his life. Optimistic that his marriage can be repaired "since he's better now", he teams up with his neighbor, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), to regain his ex-wife's affection. With motives and a disorder of her own, Tiffany holds her contact with Pat's ex-wife over his head and coerces him to compete in a dance competition with her. Hilarity and moments of mania in public ensue.
These specific illnesses are rarely portrayed in an accurate way. Having Bipolar Disorder myself, I was extremely happy with the imagery and tonal changes in this film. Both bipolar and borderline personality are hallmarked by extreme emotional highs and lows, which often cycle rapidly. Actors and crew alike did an excellent job in making sure these shifts in mood were properly transitioned.
Shutter Island (2010)- PTSD/Paranoid Schizophrenia
Suffering a great loss is always difficult to bounce back from. Many never do, and a select few slip into themselves in ways that are horrifying and saddening to witness. Shutter Island, a neo-noir psychological thriller set in mid-50s Boston, begins on a ferry to Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are tasked with investigating the disappearance of a murderous patient. Upon discovering proof of seemingly horrible deeds being carried out by staff and patients alike, Teddy and Chuck must confront their own darkest fears to uncover the asylum's secrets.
Aside from the obvious delight of the neo-noir platform, Shutter Island perfectly follows a character through the haze and confusion of distorted reality. By the time the twist is revealed, the audience is just as jarred as the patient. In fact, I had to watch it twice to uncover all the clues cleverly placed in the film's body. This perfectly displays how schizophrenia operates. The affected have no way to differentiate between delusion and reality after a psychotic break. Sometimes it takes an elaborate scheme to pull them out of their delusion. Some never truly return to reality, no matter the validity of the truth. This is a film I will never get tired of watching.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)- Depression
In 1970's America, a time of great change and revolution, being a teenager could not have been easy. With the decade's parents reluctant to accept such free spirited values, many became overbearing and downright controlling. This was the case for the Lisbon sisters. Their story narrated by the reminiscing neighborhood boys that adored them, Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (AJ Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna R. Hall) became the posthumous celebrities of their town by way of their suicides. The film is essentially a review of the evidence and events leading to the traumatic deaths of the sisters. Based on the book of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is a heavy, intriguing cult classic.
This film makes my list for many reasons. Most importantly, its important to remember that environment is a huge factor in regard to the progression of mental illness, especially depression. While the Lisbon parents undoubtedly loved their children, their incessant need to control every facet of their lives created an alienating, sullen environment for the girls, contributing to their ultimate fate. The entire movie has a faded, dreary tone that has the viewers on pins and needles while awaiting the climax of the film. That is intelligent film making. When you expose the end of the movie in the beginning, you better make the middle solid enough to hold attention.
Black Swan (2010)- Schizophrenia/Psychosis/Eating Disorder
The world of professional ballet gets a lot of harsh criticism. From encouraging eating disorders to questionably intense training, being a ballerina is not for everyone. For Nina (Natalie Portman), ballet is life. When the director of the upcoming production of Swan Lake decides to replace the lead with Nina, she's overwhelmed with joy. However, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) becomes some pretty harsh competition. She fits the role of the black swan, but Lily seems to want the spotlight and will step on anyone to get it. The two become friends anyway...and that's when things get interesting. Nina must come to understand the strange happenings occurring around her, all the while needing to be able to perform well.
What gets me excited about this film is it's dark tone. Taking the form of a pseudo-thriller, I grew more nervous as the plot unraveled. The toll that schizophrenia takes is wonderfully spoken to: from unexpected new explorations of sexuality to mysterious scratches and bruises, from hallucination to extreme paranoia. It was hard for me to watch this woman unravel.
Mental illness is a real issue. Its refreshing to see it being brought to the spotlight in recent cinematic fashion. Awareness is a big deal, and I'm happy to see the Hollywood of today jump on the bandwagon. Each instance of this class of disease is unique, making for an infinite number of stories to tell. Maybe in time, film makers and movie goers alike can become a voice for those that have none. We can help end the stigma and silence associated with mental illness. These people are suffering just like cancer patients and diabetics. Watch movies like those listed today and learn something new about it. #AlwaysKeepFighting
Do you agree with my list? What movies about mental illness hit you a little too close to home? Comment! Share!