2010 was a complex year for film. It was a year where mental health started to slowly creep into the eyes of the media and film, in a way that focused upon adults and the pressures that started to face them a decade into the new century. From looking at body imagery in Black Swan, exploring the darker side of institutions in Shutter Island and the pressures of social anxiety in The King’s Speech – these films helped to pave the way for more serious cinematic exploration of mental illness in society, in history and from an industry perspective. The missing link in these, however, is looking at it from a teenage perspective.
For our focal piece: It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a small indie film emerging in the decade, had quite a prolific cast still freshly settling into Hollywood but felt very much brushed under the carpet. It was snuffed at by critics and given minimal press coverage, which is an occurrence when it was a phenomenal year for quality cinema. However, for a niche group of us, there was this immediate connection with the premise of it. Screenshotted quotes from the film had filtered through into Tumblr hashtags of #depression, #suicide #mentalhealth – which is where this small demographic of teenage digital natives embraced the film like an old friend that prematurely understood the nuances and non-simplistic nature of mental health, for it would not be for years to come until the government, businesses and society started to open up to the severity of the world’s mental health crisis.
To those who are unfamiliar with the film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is the tale of Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist), a 16-year-old boy from New York who checks himself into a mental health facility after contemplating attempting suicide, in which he envisions jumping off a bridge into traffic under the observation of his family. With the teenage wing being closed, Craig is placed in the adult facility. After a wave of fear and regret, he tries to leave but finds out that he legally must stay for five days until medical signs him off.
What the film nails from the offset is the dealing of suicide; a taboo word that usually sparks tepid fear into most, and understandably a trigger word for some. The subject is dealt with sensitively and pragmatically, in which Craig is asked to fill out a doctor’s form detailing is admittance, and essentially expects him to relay his suicidal emotions in simple terms. It allows the word to grow a presence in the comfortable silence the viewer is feeling, it allows them not to be afraid of the term and any similar subsequent terminology that is used. The other significant characters in the film are Bobby (Zack Gaflinkas) who is a regular patient on the ward after trying to commit suicide for the 6th time, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), another teenage patient who is in for self-harm, become a part of Craig’s stay. There are also other members of the ward whose interactions have a profound impact on the teen as he comes to terms with the validation of his own mental health, gaining compassion and understanding for others suffering – but also looking on the lighter side of it. The humour in the film is a reminder that mental health is not a complete blanket gloom, it fades in and out of severity and where there is dark, there is also light.
The disparity between Bobby and Craig’s healing over that week is an incredibly relevant contextual point to make. Due to Bobby’s decline in his mental health, it takes a knocking onto his personal life including financial implications which means he cannot afford an apartment or give a place for his daughter to come to stay with him. In addition to this, his daughter’s mum is patronizing of his mental state and is cruel and abusive. It suggests that your mental health should be ‘fixed’ as you age, and having this belittling occur in front of his young child only adds insult to injury. Notably, Craig observes this through the blurred glass of the doors; the shrills of Bobby’s ex echoing through the halls as you physically see him fold. For a character that presents himself as being everyone’s friend in the centre, and builds himself on sarcastic, joyful humour to detach himself from the situation; to see him physically retire into himself is reflective of how it feels inside to emotionally crumble as your mind becomes overpowering. Her harshness feeds into his own internal voice. What is also so powerful about this scene is that you may hope his daughter takes empathy from the situation as he allows her to see him be vulnerable despite the verbal bashing. It’s also a mirroring of how Craig’s little sister sees him during an attack or when he has a bad day, in which she never diminishes his suffering; and despite occasional juvenile taunts, she only sees it as a part of him. The film tentatively explores the discourse of not wanting to feel a burden on others, but not wanting to hide it either – because it is not a shameful thing to suffer from mental health but that doesn’t make it easier to be honest about it either. When Bobby’ has a burst of anger after feeling like he’s screwed up an interview, it brings into focus again the seriousness of mental illness; that even when someone looks calm and collected, there might be deeper emotions bubbling under the surface.
The relationship between Craig and Noelle comparatively is an interesting one, because this is where the film falls short slightly at times. We’re not contextually given much insight into her backstory, with only a glimpse at her arm laced with self-harm scars, but we know she’s also only there for a brief time too. The film is an adaptation of the novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, in which the book describes her face as being intensely scarred, having a much more dishevelled look and troubled past – which is not explored in depth in the film, and could have been delved into more. What they connect with most is being two teenagers on an adult psychiatric ward, which is difficult enough to contend with amidst the multitude of issues flying around their head, but also the simple complexities of just being hormonal adolescents as well. Many perceive mental health in young adults as just the same old teenage issues, when in fact it the pressures that the youth face today is far more pressing in comparison to their parent’s generation.
The digital age brought in a multitude of issues, causing the world to become instantaneous and the idolization of attaining perfection in all areas of your life: from the expectations of having decided on a career, having the perfect work / life balance etc. Craig and Noelle explore this together, how these pressures become entangled with their mental health and the coping issues they fall into due to it, from eating disorders to self-harm and suicidal tendencies. But they also see other aspects of mental health affecting the adults later on in life, which is a gentle reminder that there isn’t a cure for mental health, but equally that you’re not alone or unusual to suffer with it. It can at times feel like a clichéd teenage romance – which to a degree the film is, and perhaps the humorous gimmicks move away from the book’s plot. As a stand-alone film, however, it holds a lot of hope and promise.
Another powerful moment is during the music class when the scene immerses into a parallel diegetic landscape of them on stage recreating Bowie’s Under Pressure. Within this moment, the music carries them into a different collective headspace, where what goes on in your find is irrelevant, and the joy from the community and music is the only thing that matters. No matter how it may sound in real life, their immersion into it takes the pain away for a time. In the past few years, creative expression to help alleviate debilitating symptoms of mental health is starting to be introduced as a daily activity within society. All the ward is brought together to share in the moment and is a powerful healing moment. Music again plays a crucial part towards the end of the film. Craig’s Egyptian roommate Muqtada never leaves his bed and is in a constant state of enclosed quiet depression for the entirety of the film. For the teen’s departure, a pizza party is held, and Craig gets a vinyl delivered that has traditional Egyptian tunes, and we see Muqtada tentatively leave his room, and slowly start to dance. To see the light and joy seep back into a person who has lost all hope through such a profound, beautiful medium is utterly captivating and inspiring. He’s not “fixed” and it is not a cure, but it is a way of coping and finding purpose again through something personally uplifting – that is what matters.
Having a male protagonist dealing with the complexities of suicidal thoughts is a tough narrative to build, not only being such a sensitive topic requires particular handling in that you would want to depict an accurate portrayal of suffering from severe mental health, but also not allow this to be the overriding aspect of one’s personality. Men’s mental health especially has been regarded as a taboo topic for a long time, with a culture of toxic masculinity driving down awareness, compassion and understanding of it. According to the Office of National Statistics, Males accounted for three-quarters of suicides registered in 2017 (4,382 deaths), which has been the case since the mid-1990s. Craig’s journey and those of his friends is a prominent reminder that mental health does not define you, it is a part of you and that is a glowing part of who Craig is. We are taken by the hand and led down a path into his brain, much like the paper towns he draws in art class to circumnavigate his own cranium, allowed to peak into childhood memories that are nostalgic yet troubling, as you see a glimmer of his older self in this shy young boy. Each door we are led to peaks into another part of his consciousness, from when he foreshadows what he would say in the class he feels socially anxious in, how he would ask the girl he fancies out on a date, and so significantly, what he truly wanted to say to his parents before he tried to take his own life. To him, it didn’t feel so severe at the start, but it allows you to understand the factors that lead up to someone wanting to take their own life.
The film also faced quite a brutal reception from critics at the time of release, that revolved around it being sentimental, boring and questioning the time frame of events. Yes, it has the slight Hollywood glazing over the realities, but unless it’s a biopic or documentary; what film isn’t susceptible to this? And agreed, it is a slightly condensed time frame – but also the process of what goes through your mind in short term inpatient stays can be quite accelerated in the time that you’re there. The book’s author, Ned Vizinni, actually took his own life in 2013, which is a stark and desperate reminder to be kind to everyone as you never know what someone may be suffering from. From what can feel like this enclosed debilitating pressure that you have to cope with alone, is suddenly lifted out of you by the team, the other patients and your family as you are suddenly opened into a place where you can be open about your illness. Within this time, a lot can happen and the slow process of healing or dealing with issues starts to occur – and this pace can increase. In addition, Craig is checked into the adult psych ward because the teenage wing is closed off, and so the situation is going to be more complex, including meeting characters with varying degrees of illness severity. There is also this pessimism from critics who turn their noses up at the notion of people on the ward integrating with each other, finding hope from new people. It is a complete under-estimation of how coping mechanisms work. You can try ten different methods that feel entirely futile, and then engaging in a music class or writing out your feelings in a diary and burning it – can have the most immediate cathartic release. Sometimes it is such a long process, or sometimes it’s a lightbulb coming on. Not all minds work in the same way, not all mental health issues have the same healing process; and in fact, the film captures this so honestly.
To conclude, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a crucially important and precious film to those who felt connected and identified with it. It explores the complexities of mental health a candid, meaningful way that doesn’t dismiss or demonize mental health – but instead embodies and explores the complex nature of it, and how every personality is different. It creatively opens up an understanding to those who may not suffer from it to be a part of the conversation, and also reveal the economic and societal implications that mental health can have on a person’s life and how debilitating and devastating it can be. Yet brings in a joyful comedy that sees the funny side to it as well, sharing in the moment of what can feel like a ridiculous situation. hope. Its imperfectness is what makes it important, relevant and significantly – hopeful.
Elle Haywood (She/Her) is a Londoner working by day in digital marketing analytics and by night as a film critic. She has a first class degree from ARU in Media Studies and is a huge fan of independent cinema & championing female filmmakers. Can be found gushing over Sophia Coppola & Wes Anderson most days. Renowned for accidentally making actors overly emotional in interviews.