Craig Silliphant “The Movie Geek”, CTV Saskatoon
Hollywood tends to make a lot of movies about mental illness and actors often relish these roles. However, many of these films use mental illness as an opportunity for exploitive drama or Oscar bait performances, rather than really giving viewers a window of empathy to those battling depression or other mental illness. A movie like Girl, Interrupted is a prime example of this; Hollywood royalty Angela Jolie even won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role, playing a sociopath in an institution. Now, it’s no shame to have won an Oscar, but the movie itself delves so deeply into melodrama even the writer of the novel Girl, Interrupted was a major detractor of the film. Girl, Interrupted also seemed to carry the message that those with mental illness need to buck up and get over it; that there is a choice involved and these silly girls should stop being dramatic. Even a movie like A Beautiful Mind, which would top most lists like this, seems to present a very glamourized version of schizophrenia. And in fact, the movie seems to posit that schizophrenia caused mathematician John Nash’s brain to be wired to think differently. In reality, Nash had to stop working when his illness really took hold.
Arguably, movies like Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind are mental illness as entertainment. Of course, all movies are entertainment, but when a filmmaker decides to take mental illness more seriously, a film becomes more powerful and justified. So I decided to really dig deep into film history to find five good movies about mental illness. There are, of course, more than five good movies that explore this topic, but these are five that I think showcase conversations about mental health well. Movies that don’t belittle people who are battling with depression. Movies that don’t use mental health as exploitation. Some of the movies I’ve found are about people with major issues, some of them about lost souls with quiet, everyday struggles. But hopefully there’s something to be found in each of them.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson plays a character that is actually not mentally ill, but he ends up in an asylum after faking insanity to escape hard prison labour. He is surrounded by characters with a range of issues, but moreso, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a look at some of the deplorable conditions that good people with mental issues have been forced to deal with. The movie is funny, touching, frustrating, and largely considered one of the best movies in cinematic history. Ken Kesey’s 1962 book, as well as the film, are both credited with destroying the image of ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, and hastening its exit from mental health care.
Crumb is a documentary about cartoonist, Robert Crumb, but it’s so much more than that. As an artist, Crumb transformed his own childhood neurosis into garish and satirical works. But the movie goes even deeper into his family, in one of the most heartbreaking looks at day-to-day mental illness. Crumb’s brother Charles Crumb, who never moved out of his mother’s house and ended up committing suicide a few years back, is featured quite prominently. It’s noted that Charles was just as good as an artist as Robert, but he gave up drawing as his mental illness worsened over time. What starts as a movie about a seminal underground American cartoonist becomes one of the most telling portraits of mental illness and its effects on both the individual and family.
Ordinary People, a 1980 film and the directorial debut of Robert Redford, is another film that shows the ramifications of mental illness on families. In the movie, Timothy Hutton plays Conrad, a suicidal young man returning home from a psychiatric facility after the death of his older brother. Donald Sutherland tries to connect with his son and understand his wife, who is in denial and seems to be growing colder towards Conrad. This is a Hollywood movie, and it did take home several Oscars, but it is also one of the more intelligent and meaningful takes on mental distress and how it affects lives.
Two Days, One Night
While Two Days, One Night isn’t specifically about mental illness, it factors into the story quite heavily and explores stigma and how people in the workplace perceive those with mental health issues. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother that works in a factory in Belgium. She is forced to take time away from work after a nervous breakdown. While she’s away, her co-workers realize they can cover her work, so management offers them a big bonus if they agree to make her redundant. Sandra must visit each of her sixteen colleagues over the weekend to convince them to reject the bonus and keep her on. Two Days, One Night is about many things, including the economy of poverty, a major contributor to mental health issues. But it is also about how her coworkers, people she used to work beside, either see her differently, assume she’s being lazy, or just use her mental health as an excuse to get the bonus for their own needs.
Just because a movie is bright and funny, doesn’t mean it can’t add to the conversation about mental illness. And while Pixar movies are very Hollywood, they are also a company that takes chances in their storytelling that push animated films to new heights. In Inside Out, a girl named Riley is displaced from her home and her depression starts to surface. But we see ‘inside’ Riley’s head to her personified emotions, each played by different people; Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. While it is obviously not very scientifically relevant, it is a very smart way to help children understand and articulate their emotions. Inside Out is also a movie with a very powerful message — that it’s okay to feel sadness. And moreso — that it’s okay to ask for help.