Katherine Noble, Contributing Writer
We don’t expect movies to be entirely truthful. It’s often fun to suspend disbelief and lose yourself in a fun, fictional storyline. However, when films incorrectly portray mental illness, it can be harmful, reinforcing negative stereotypes and glamorizing real conditions.
This makes it harder to break down stigmas and have conversations about these issues. Some films do a great job with accurate, authentic portrayals of mental illness. Others perpetuate myths and fear mongering, further contributing to the stigma faced by those with mental illnesses.
Here are two films I think miss the mark in terms of portraying mental illness. They both contribute to false conceptions of mental illness, one in an uneducated but not terribly harmful way, and the other by perpetuating toxic and harmful stereotypes.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (2010)
This film follows a 15-year-old boy, Craig, who spends five days in a psych ward. During his stay there, he makes some unexpected friends and realizes a passion for art. The story is sweet, but the setup of the ward was incredibly erroneous. It seemed everywhere I looked was a safety hazard. Real behavioral health units are almost excessively safe. In this film, there were open stairwells, dangling cords and essentially no nurses. These are significant and easily avoidable safety risks that real psych wards would avoid at all costs.
Real-life patients could potentially hurt themselves in unsafe conditions, especially under the stress that accompanies being institutionalized. No ward would want to have these kinds of patient risks present. But my biggest beef with this film: I counted approximately four dozen fedoras — that’s just way too many fedoras.
“Joker” follows the origin story of Batman’s famous nemesis as he goes from meek aspirational stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck to the crazed titular villain. Regardless of violence and any other controversial aspects of the film, “Joker” perpetuates toxic stereotypes around mental illness.
Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, stops taking his medication after being denied affordable access through social services. His mental illness is given no specific name, another example of the lazy writing in this film. Fleck stopping his medication is directly juxtaposed with an increase in the violent acts he commits, which is misinformed and further amplifies stigma and fear. Plus, it’s trite. So many horror films imply or state that their villains and brutes are mentally ill or disabled in some way without heed to the negative conception they’re reinforcing. It’s a lazy out with real consequences for those with mental illness. Filmmakers should push themselves to make more creative and authentic works that don’t equate illness with evilness.
Films that do good jobs of portraying mental illness do so because they don’t use it as a plot contrivance to tie up loose ends or easily explain why a character is the way that they are. These films incorporate these conditions as part of a whole character. Here are two films I think do a great job of this.
“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
“Silver Linings Playbook” is a charming romantic comedy following Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) as they take on a dancing competition together. Pat has bipolar disorder and has recently been released from a psychiatric institution at the beginning of the film. Although the film doesn’t send us too far into his head, we are able to see his manic episodes, his efforts to control them and how he interacts with others. This film does a good job of humanizing his character and not letting his mental illness make him into a caricature.
Pat’s mental illness isn’t the focus of the film, and he is clearly portrayed as a sympathetic character. This is unique in a positive way. His mental illness is certainly important and it affects his life, but it doesn’t stop him from being a good and likeable person. Mental illness is more commonly shown in dramas, so it’s refreshing to see a comedy that gives weight to this issue without getting bogged down. We root for Pat throughout the movie, no matter his flaws and mental state.
“You Were Never Really Here” (2017)
This gritty independent film is everything “Joker” wanted — and failed — to be. Phoenix gives an incredible performance as Joe, a mentally ill man engaging in tremendous violence. It’s a tough watch, but the depictions of Joe’s PTSD are raw and intense and not at all enviable. Joe has regular panic attacks, doesn’t speak much and kills pedophiles for a living; but he also cares for his elderly mother with immense tenderness. This complexity is refreshing.
Both films revolve around mentally ill men who commit acts of violence. Both men are underdogs. Both men experience vivid hallucinations of false scenarios. The distinct difference between this and “Joker” is that in this film, we have a nuanced character who strives to do the right things with dirty methods.