Tag Archives: mental illness in movies

Cracked Up

Darrell Hammond will go down in history as one of the greatest SNL cast members of all time – and he was the longest-tenured until Keenan Thompson unseated him recently. Both are alike in that they were never the show’s breakout stars, but their supportive performances aren’t just crucial, they are in fact the glue that makes it possible for the cast to coagulate at all. Darrell Hammond is a master impressionist and holds the record for doing the most on SNL – 105 – among them, rather famously,  Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Sean Connery, and Regis Philbin.

But while Hammond was making America giggle, in private he was battling debilitating flashbacks of childhood trauma; addiction and self-injury served as coping mechanisms until it all inevitably came crumbling down. It took 50 years for a doctor to diagnose his pain correctly, unleashing the painful memories his mind couldn’t bear to address.

He wrote about this in his autobiography and he shares further in director Michelle Esrick’s documentary, which can be found on Netflix. I hope he has some appreciation for how profoundly talking so openly about these things can impact not just an audience but indeed a culture. There is power in owning your story and understanding that any associated shame is not yours: is not the victim’s, but the perpetrator’s.

Childhood trauma is a far-reaching poison. Hammond, of course, has had the privilege and the resources to pay it the kind of attention necessary for taming it. Healing may be a lifelong journey, but it’s clear Hammond has found a healthier head space and a new appreciation for and ability to celebrate the good things in his life.

All The Bright Places

Violet and Finch meet atop a bridge. He is running across it, she is teetering on its ledge. He offers her a hand, and she takes it.

It’s a powerful and awful way to start a relationship, saving someone’s life. Violet (Elle Fanning) goes to Finch’s school. She is struggling with her sister’s death, a car accident Violet was in the passenger seat for. Finch (Justice Smith) sort of takes her under his wing, coaxing her out of her comfort zone under the guise of a school assignment. They travel to the wondrous places of Indiana, which will kill any thoughts of tourism you may have been harbouring because the wonders are underwhelming at best but Finch presents them with whimsy and charm, and how can Violet resist? But for all his saviour posturing with Violet, Finch has some pretty deep emotional scars of his own.

Despite its title, All The Bright Places can go to some very dark places. The leads are meant to be 17 but the story gives their characters some pretty heavy burdens and some serious sophistication. Fanning and Smith have great chemistry and give grounded performances, saving the film for what might have been maudlin or overwrought. Still, with Violet and Finch confronting grief, abandonment, and struggles with mental health, All The Bright Places is quite weighty for a teenage romance. I’m not sure the film quite handles itself correctly all the time; at times it feels a little superficial and easy. But on the whole I found it quite enjoyable. It’s based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven and it feels like it. Which is not a criticism, actually, and it does deviate quite a bit from the book, it’s just that it wants to impart some wisdom, it wants to make some profound discoveries, and it doesn’t mind being rather obvious about it, like a parent or a guidance counselor might. Like, if you wanted to extrapolate that you should become your own bright place, the film will nod at you encouragingly while quietly nudging a box of tissues in your direction. Take the box.

Phil

Phil (Greg Kinnear) is a depressed dentist who becomes obsessed with his patient Michael (Bradley Whitford) who seems to have it all. Chasing the secret to happiness, Phil more or less stalks the guy and his perfect family. Phil’s as surprised as anyone when Michael suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, commits suicide. If the guy who has everything takes his life, where does that leave guys like Phil who most decidedly do not?

If you answered black-out drunk on Michael’s grave, you answered right! That’s where Michael’s widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer) finds him the next morning, hung over with a face full of dirt. But it does not account for why Phil decides on the spot to impersonate Michael’s long-lost Greek friend Spiros as a way of ingratiating himself into the grieving family. Before you know it, he’s renovating their bathroom while digging through Michael’s belongings trying to answer the age old question WHY?

I get it. Suicide is one of those tricky things, like cancer, that leave us feeling vulnerable. We want to know why so that we can feel safe. If someone got cancer because they smoke, we feel relieved because we ourselves are not smokers. Bullet dodged. If someone commits suicide because they have huge gambling debts, lucky us again, because we aren’t gamblers. Phew. We need these tangible markers to help us feel insulated from these scary possibilities. When a vegetarian marathon runner gets cancer, well, that reminds us how random it can all be. And when someone who lives a good life ends it – well, don’t we all sleep a little worse at night wondering why?

Both Phil and Michael’s widow Alicia would like to understand Michael’s motivations, but the truth is, those aren’t always knowable. Mental health is complicated and the things that make one person feel hopeless and helpless don’t always translate. Is better, then, to have each other – even if one of them is not who they claim?

Greg Kinnear stars and directs himself in Phil, a very dark comedy that doesn’t work more often than it does. And it’s not just the tricky subject matter, though it’s difficult to feel good about watching one man find the meaning in his life because of another man’s suicide. Doesn’t quite feel right. Or maybe it’s just not pushed far enough to be convincing. It’s obviously got dark undertones but Greg Kinnear often pushes the goofy side, and those two things don’t always pair well. The script is clunky and the direction doesn’t help – even the performances struggle to rise above. Phil is fine, a mild disappointment I suppose. There’s worse to watch but better too, so I suggest you scroll a little further before clicking on this one.

Tomorrow is Another Day

Mrs. Wong (Teresa Mo) is too exhausted to care that her husband is having an affair. She tolerates it in order to keep her family together, especially important since her 20 year old son Kwong (Man-Lung Ling) has autism, and developmental disabilities, that require stability and a lot of care. But one day the young mistress (they’re always young) stops by the house and agitates Kwong. After a terrible fight, Mr. Wong (Ray Lui) leaves. He leaves them. Now the burden of caring for her disabled son falls to Mrs. Wong entirely, and with his father gone, he’s acting out more than ever. If she was tired before, she’s beyond tired now. There’s almost nothing in Mrs. Wong’s life that’s just for her – her only indulgence during these dark days is to plot revenge scenarios against the dreaded mistress.

Teresa Mo, Ray Lui, and Man-Lung Ling make for a very attractive family; you’d hardly MV5BY2U2OTQ2ODQtNjQzMC00YTdiLWJiZTYtOWQ3MGI1OTE3NTJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_believe from the outside all the difficulties they face. But Mo and Lui are good at communicating a marriage strained by years of putting someone else’s needs above their own, of never having the time to honour their coupledom. We know that this is not Mr. Wong’s first dalliance, and we see the toll it’s taken on their marriage.

Ling’s portrayal of special needs is perhaps not the best we’ve seen on screen, but it’s Kwong’s relationship with his mother that is the most essential of the film. He’s normally cheerful and energetic; he skips along, vocalizing sounds more than words. But his meltdowns are ferocious. A full-grown man, when he starts self-harming, Mrs. Wong really can’t cope on her own. By showing us the enormity of her caregiver’s role, director Chan Tai-lee (the guy who wrote Ip Man) highlights a dearth of resources, of respite. Mrs. Wong shoulders it all, without complaint, facing down discrimination like that’s to be expected. All of her anger and resentment are saved for the mistress (a one-note, selfie-taking villain); murder fantasies are her only escape.

Her social life’s only balm is a group of housewives with whom she sews and sings karaoke. But these are the same women who will uncover her plot. And then what? You’ll have to watch to the end to find out.

First Reformed

The Reverend Ernst Toller is the minister at First Reformed church, a small congregation in upstate New York. Mary, a young woman in the community, asks him to counsel her husband, who is struggling with her pregnancy. Michael is an environmental activist who is gripped by despair and hopelessness – he cannot imagine bringing a child into this world. Ernst (Ethan Hawke) takes him on, but it’s a tough case, and he relates more to the wife (Amanda Seyfried) than to the husband, who seems unreachable.

But the truth is, the Reverend is in no condition to counsel anyone. He’s messed up. MV5BYjA3OTJlODAtZjNlNi00ZTE1LTkxNzctNzJlNjQ5NjQxZTcyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX750_CR0,0,750,999_AL_And Michael’s question “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” messes him up even more. He defends god, but struggles privately. He takes up Michael’s obsession but continues to pollute his own body, as we watch his physical and mental health spiral downward.

The first half of the movie is a lot of Ernst feverishly and guiltily Googling, while also drinking himself to death. It’s is not overly compelling stuff. But it’s super jarring when there’s suddenly a scene that feels like a complete divergence from everything that came before it. It’s almost like director Paul Schrader is shaking things up to allow room for the spiritual. He reminds us that we’re not in charge. We may think we know what’s happening, but we don’t.

And that’s true. I was very caught off guard by the ending, and there’s not many stories in the world that I don’t see coming a mile away. I mean, we know this dude is having a breakdown in a major way. But things get extreme, and, um, open to interpretation? This movie is getting a lot of love from the critics, but it does boil down to: 90% boring, 2% omg wtf, and I guess 8% wrapping your head around Cedric the Entertainer’s casting. It’s one you’ll have to see for yourself.

Ethan Hawke is quite good, and he has to be because this character embodies so many conflicts – faith & science, love & fear, strength & despair, consecration & desecration. It’s hard to really put this one into words, which I think is kind of the point. Schrader tackles the inexpressible, he goes there, and treats spirituality with more seriousness than I’ve seen from a movie in a long, long time. It does not make for fun viewing. Can you hack that? Is that how you want to spend 108 minutes?

Leave No Trace

This is a special breed of movie. In a summer of blockbusters, this quiet movie is a stand-out, a necessary refuge from the storm of testosterone and TNT playing at the local cineplex.

It’s about an army vet, Will (Ben Foster) who has made a home for himself and 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in a national park, where they read books, grow and forage food, and live a peaceful, low-stress existence. Until, that is, a small mistake trips them up and they are apprehended by park rangers and social services. Though Tom is obviously well-cared for and has been MV5BMjExNWUzZDItMTdmMS00ZjQ5LThlZTktYTE0Y2RhNzEzOWRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTc3ODg@._V1_educated beyond her grade level, she should be in school, and have a roof over her head. At least that’s what the social worker says. But once housed and employed, things get sticky. Tom is a curious and lively teenager, making friends and thriving in her new environment. Her dad struggles to assimilate, and he’s largely unable to cope.

Trust me, I know the description sounds ordinary, but the execution is flawless.

  1. The casting is impeccable. Ben Foster isn’t a big, bankable name but he’s every casting director’s wet dream. He brings intensity and gravitas to every role he encounters, and the stoic approach he takes with Will is perfect, though few other actors would give themselves permission to try such subtlety. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie is fabulous. The movie is all about their dynamic and it only works if both halves of their little family unit is working in synchronicity. Tom is obviously bright but McKenzie gives her such a sense of vulnerability that we never lose sight of what’s at stake.
  2. The script, by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, is such a luxury. They find so much value and beauty in simplicity that I’m astonished at how much I felt for what amounts to a fairly sparse script. The difference is, they’ve edited carefully, they’ve pared it down to the essentials, and tuned them ever so carefully. What’s left is a lot of room for the actors to be comfortable and take ownership. Room for the director to make her mark. It’s so smartly-written. It would be easy to find melodrama in these circumstances but instead Granik and Rosellini consistently find empathy and dignity and it makes weepy just to write about it.
  3. The cinematography is astonishing. At times it looks like an expensive nature documentary – one that fits seamlessly into a feature film. Someone (Michael McDonough) took a lot of care with this. He films the park with such loving and patience we get the sense of how at home the characters are in this special place. By contrast, the city looks colder, less inviting.
  4. Granik’s direction is flawless. As you may be surmising from everything written so far, there isn’t much in the movie, not even silences and blank spaces, that aren’t actively working for the plot or the characters. And by keeping things trim, it forces the audience to be active too. The keys are all there, and the deft direction encourages us to pick them up, sort them out. This movie respects its characters and its audience – objectively, the events and circumstances are tragic, but they’re communicated with such restraint. It’s easy to have sympathy when no one is asking for it. Will and Tom do not describe their situation as homelessness, and the movie lovingly backs them up in this.

This movie is so thoughtful and caring and it shows a different model for living and loving with no judgment. There’s no malice, no villains. Even the social services are shown to be well-intentioned. But Will and Tom are hardly the only outcasts, and Leave No Traces embraces them as well. It has room in its heart for everyone and even though there is much to be sad about, the film is so sweetly assembled that I left the theatre with a little pocket of hope in my heart. There are no easy answers, but Granik’s gaze is fair and honest and I’m just bowled over by every inch of this movie. It’s a rare and precious thing, and though it may be called Leave No Trace, it actually leaves quite a mark.

 

Torrey Pines

So here’s a movie for all you people who like to take some risks with your cartoon watching!

Torrey Pines is stop-motion animated, but there’s no clay in sight, it’s all paper cut outs, which I kind of loved. I mean, I’m a sucker for stop-motion any day of the week, but this one looks like something your or I could do, if only we had tonnes of time and talent and patience and a kick-ass story to tell. Clyde Petersen has all of those things, and this is (sort of) his story.

It’s about Clyde when Clyde was still a 12 year old girl dealing with gender identity and the struggle of finding his way. The film is filled with wild hallucinations and MV5BMjEzNjMwMTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk4NDg4MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1763,1000_AL_psychological projections, so even though the movie is without dialogue, we still feel what Clyde is feeling. When in the car with his mother, we don’t hear them argue, but when a speech bubble features a bear biting off the head of a rabbit, we get the gist. Clyde’s mother is schizophrenic, and what she sees as a fun-filled family road trip from San Diego up to New York, the rest of the world views more as kidnapping. It’s a trip that will change Clyde and his family forever.

My love for stop-motion exists because there’s just no better way to visually represent the love and attention that goes into making a film. Stop-motion will often show us how something works close up, and we see beauty in this new perspective. Torrey Pines doesn’t disappoint; I particularly loved seeing the jointed fingers at work. But it’s also not traditionally beautiful animation. It reminded me of being in high school – my friend Kelly one day said to me that my shoes were so ugly they were cool. Up until that exact moment I’d only seen the cool in them, and forever afterward couldn’t stop seeing the ugly (she was right). The look of Torrey Pines is also ugly-cool (although legitimately both), and perhaps there is no better aesthetic to explore a coming of age story in the 1990s.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no dialogue to this movie, and that definitely proved challenging for Sean. Maybe it’s not for everyone but I liked that this film was a rule-breaker. Music and score play a much larger role in the film because of the lack of speaking roles, and it really moves us along through the stages of the film. There’s a lot to see and think about in this movie, heavy stuff, but really relatable and authentic  with a flavour all its own.

The Sweet Life

Chris Messina plays Kenny, the world’s saddest ice cream peddler. He mopes around Chicago in his stupid black bowtie, eventually ending up on a bridge that’s perfect for throwing oneself off of. EXCEPT the bridge is a little crowded: Lolita (Abigail Spencer) is also there, and she’s feeling kind of territorial about her favourite suicide spot. But before you know it, they’re bonding over their mutual depression and the crappy therapist they have in common. They don’t call their respective suicides off, but they do decide that no death is complete without one last road trip – and aren’t the bridges in San Francisco that much nicer for hosting one’s imminent death?

The-Sweet-Life-trailer-700x300.pngSo off they drive in a stolen Mercedes. They have a cross-country adventure that only two people determined to die could possibly have: madcap, in a non-urgent way.  The script doesn’t feel compelled to follow the usual formula for a road trip movie, so it’s sprinkled with surprising pit stops and hijinks. Kenny and Lolita have nothing to lose, so anything is possible.

I usually find Chris Messina quite charming, but he’s dialed way down in The Sweet Life, playing a man longing to die. It sounds quite grim but actually Messina and Spencer manage to keep things fairly light most of the time, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The actors are talented enough to try to convey more than the script itself allows, but the truth is, the movie treats mental illness pretty flippantly, as if suicidal ideation is just a means to a meet-cute. It also sort of implies that their mental health problems are directly attributable to one specific person, and confronting that one person should cure them for good — right?

If you aren’t too concerned about the movie’s messaging about mental health, it’s a quirky little indie dramedy that’s a great character exercise for two fearless actors. Their struggle to connect feels real, the emotional dissonance sometimes a challenge, but The Sweet Life is not as hopeless as it sounds.

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls lived a turbulent childhood: her parents bustled her and her 3 siblings from town to town, evading bill collectors, never quite having enough money for both food and her father’s insatiable thirst. Poverty and addictions pock her youth, but for all their struggles, her mother would never leave her father, and the kids soon realized they’d need to fend for themselves, each disappearing to the big city as soon as it was feasible (a real challenge when someone is constantly drinking up all the money).

Walls went on to write a memoir detailing the hardships she lived through, and that tgc_d02_00156_00157_comp_r2.jpgbook became this movie, though something was lost getting from A to B. The book pulls no punches. Her parents are complex characters, and their children have conflicted feelings toward them. The movie’s a little more pat, the trajectory a little more Hollywood. Someone decided to apply some spit shine to this story, a story that’s naturally very dark and brooding now has themes of hope and redemption that maybe don’t belong.

I can’t say what exactly is wrong with the film except it’s just too easy. The grit is gone. Sure Jeannette’s father Rex is charming but he’s also kind of a monster. He’s a negligent parent who abuses his wife and kids and helps keep family molestation on the down low. And of course he wants deathbed forgiveness. Meanwhile his wife is a “free spirit” who chooses homelessness over independence from the man threatening her family’s well being. Neither parent is capable of putting their children’s needs first, or of meeting those needs even if they ever did. Which they don’t.

But The Glass Castle is worth a watch for the performances alone. As Jeannette, Brie Larson lives up to her previous Oscar win, but it’s Woody Harrelson as Rex who you’ll remember. He’s tortured and endearing and inspiring and hateful. Is this the film he’ll win his Oscar for? I wouldn’t be disappointed if he did. But shame on Hollywood for trying to put gloss and a positive spin on childhood poverty. These kids were failed not just by their parents but by the system. And now their brave story is being watered down to make it more palatable for film audiences. Shame.

To The Bone

The first image from the film is a trigger warning and believe me, take heed. To The Bone is a serious, unflinching look at eating disorders that will absolutely be upsetting to each and every one of us, but particularly to those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders themselves.

Lily Collins, herself a survivor of eating disorders, plays Ellen, a young woman still very much in the throes of anorexia. The film shows her getting treatment in a centre run by Keanu Reeves, which should tell you all you need to know about how inauthentically the healing is portrayed. In reality, treatment is heavily regimented, usually in a medical setting. Eating disorders are the most deadly of mental to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494illnesses, no one’s going to let an emaciated Lily Collins push a fish stick around her plate for dinner. And they’re also very difficult to treat because unlike drinking, you can’t simply give up food. You have to learn to eat in moderation. Eating disorders are often (but not always) about control. Often there is some type of childhood abuse that accounts for someone wanting very much to exert control over their bodies now.

This both is and isn’t the case with To The Bone, but the family dynamics are a strong point of the film. Ellen’s family situation is sad and disjointed. Family therapy does not go well. Her father is absent, her mother can’t deal anymore, so support is provided by a step-mother who maybe doesn’t have the closest of relationships with her husband’s tiring and trying daughter. Some of you may find this movie enlightening. Certainly I believe that Ellen and her disorder have been portrayed empathetically. But it’s a tough watch that could definitely be a hardship for some, and may glamourize a terrible disease for others. This is a film to be watched only with care, and preferably in the company of others.

Based on writer-director Marti Noxon’s own experiences with anorexia as a teen, the film forced Collins, in recovery for eating disorders, to lose 20lbs. She did so with the “help” of a nutritionist, but there’s nothing healthy about a young woman already on the brink of being too thin being asked to lose up to a fifth of her body weight. I hate that movies do that and I can’t imagine that graphic shots of protruding bones and skeletal characters is putting anything but negativity into the world. And it doesn’t help that none of the other characters are put into any kind of context. They help show that eating disorders are not just the stuff or rich white girls, but by keeping those characters one-dimensional, we do them a disservice. The thing is, even with good intentions, sharing stuff like this can be dangerous. Details about how to purge or count calories can come across as tips; Collins’ skin-and-bones frame can be seen as aspirational. And I suppose this is where we ask ourselves: is this film doing more harm than good? What is responsible film making? Without knowing the answers, I do know that I am not comfortable recommending this film without some heavy caveats.