Mental Illness on Screen

March 19, 2019
Often played for laughs or horror, mental health and its advice has also been treated with sensitivity on screen, as these five films amply demonstrate.  

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)

Writer/director, Maya Forbes, mines her own childhood experiences of being raised by a bipolar father for her debut feature, and it’s fitting then that Infinitely Polar Bear plays like a big, messy jumble of emotions and memories. This tone may feel jerking at first, but it soon becomes infectious. Set in seventies Boston, we’re first introduced to Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) after he’s been fired, and is telling his two daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) that they can skip school and adventure with him. But there’s an unnerving edge to his behaviour, and Cam soon suffers a nervous breakdown and is diagnosed with manic depression. His wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), can’t make ends meet, and decides to pursue a business degree in New York. The care of the girls is handed to Cam, and the film chronicles that tumultuous eighteen-month period. Wrapped in a comic playfulness, it’s a portrait of a family struggling with loving someone that they can’t make whole, but it’s also an ode to the resilience of kids, and the moments of joy that can be found in the most dysfunctional of families and circumstances. Cara Nash

THE BEAVER (2011)

Right from its provocative, ambiguously cheeky title, through to its difficult subject matter and utterly uncompromising climax, The Beaver comes on strong, and states its claim with an admirable sense of focus and purpose. The Beaver is a film about depression and delusion, but it’s also moving and meaningful. The scion of a once successful toy company, Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is now a man on a horrendous downward spiral. Chronically, hopelessly and inexplicably depressed, Walter watches with a requisite lack of energy or seeming interest as his company starts to go down the chute, and his family falls apart. But just when he’s about to end it all for good, Walter stumbles upon a beaver hand puppet, and everything changes. Speaking through the mangy brown toy on his arm, Walter starts to live again…until the beaver begins to assert itself a little too much. While its slightly absurdist premise might point to The Beaver being a black comedy, this is no laugh-fest. Yes, there are moments of dark humour, but director Jodie Foster and impressive debut screenwriter Kyle Killen treat their film’s heady themes of mental illness and personal redemption with the utmost sensitivity. Erin Free

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

Based on Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by director David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former substitute teacher who’s just spent the last seven months in a mental institution for assaulting his wife’s lover. He’s rescued from the clinic by his peacemaking mother (Jacki Weaver) but we, like Pat’s father (Robert De Niro), begin to suspect that it was perhaps a premature move. Pat finds an unlikely ally, however, in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a feisty young widow who deals with her grief by sleeping with just about anyone. The two enter into an uneasy friendship premised on the odd arrangement that if Pat partners with Tiffany for an upcoming dance competition, she’ll help him get in contact with his wife, who has a restraining order against him. In a way, this film – seemingly taking its cues from its two leads – is a strange and almost loopy jumble of tones, as we’re watching two deeply damaged characters collide in a story that feels very much brushed by the hand of Hollywood. But that’s not such a bad thing. It may be a Hollywood comedy, but it’s one that feels beautifully alive. Cara Nash

MARY AND MAX (2009)

Written and directed by Australian Adam Elliot (the brains behind the Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet), the claymated Mary And Max is a classic case of an unlikely friendship between two achingly lonely outsiders. It’s 1976 in Australian suburbia. Mary Daisy Dinkle is eight-years-old. She lacks confidence, is self-conscious about a “poo-coloured” birthmark, and harbours a burning question: do American babies come from the same place as Australian babies? In Australia, of course, babies are found in the bottoms of beer glasses. Mary gets hold of a US phone book and, hoping to solve this facts-of-life mystery, writes at random to one Max Jerry Horowitz, a Jewish New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome. Their long-distance friendship, based on Elliot’s real life pen-pal, spans twenty years and follows an unpredictable course that is often humorous and will leave you genuinely moved. Adam Elliot is not only a gifted animator, but a master storyteller, and this is close to a work of genius. Annette Basile

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)

In Ron Howard’s Oscar winning biopic, Russell Crowe plays maths genius John Nash, who we follow from his academic epiphany to a mental breakdown while code-breaking for the Department of Defense. A Beautiful Mind conveys Nash’s lifelong struggle with schizophrenia, but it’s also a love story. Nash’s commitment to his wife (Jennifer Connelly) leads him to face his disease with sheer willpower rather than medication. Based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, the filmmakers don’t shy away from fragmenting Nash’s life to tell this love story, and it’s a pretty good one. What we are given are a series of stages in Nash’s life mapping not only his struggle, but his wife’s steady commitment to him. Far from romantic, the film presents the difficult decisions each faced in the disease, and the remarkable will-power exercised to maintain their relationship. Pete Rogers

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