A Film Homage to May and Mental Health Awareness
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As they say, April showers bring May flowers. And blooming with said flowers is the celebration of mental health awareness. May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month as part of a national movement advocating for the recognition of mental health and wellness in people’s lives since 1949. The month-long campaign is a conduit for mental health education and support.
This observance promotes an extensive opportunity for communities to engage in meaningful discussions about mental health awareness, uniting those who live with mental illness and those who don’t. Sometimes, the discussion gets translated onto the big screen, as filmmakers take on the responsibility to portray the subject in film. Though many fail to capture the realities of mental illness, some accurately portray life with mental illness and clear up the stigma, offering support to those who are affected.
In chronological order, here are some films that get it right:
1. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Lasse Hallstrom’s heart-wrenching drama stars Johnny Depp as a young Gilbert Grape in small-town Iowa caring for his morbidly obese, depressed mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates) and autistic younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). After her husband’s suicide, Bonnie spends most of her time binge-eating and disassociating. Meanwhile, Arnie’s tendency to get into trouble strains his relationship with Gilbert. The entire Grape family is often mocked for their unusual behavior, and their town offers no sympathy, contributing to Bonnie’s unhealthy mental state. The tragic setting does not improve, and the film doesn’t have a cathartic happy ending. Suffering and struggle remain constant in the lives of the family. The movie signifies that not every story has a silver lining, and the struggles of mental illness have a toll on all parties involved. The movie stands out with its frank and affecting portrayal of mental and eating disorders, a rarity in Hollywood.
2. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Based on an incredible true story, this Oscar-winning biopic follows the life of John Forbes Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe), a mathematical savant and Nobel Laureate who has schizophrenia. The movie follows John’s decline from his years at Princeton University and onward. It’s a respectful and glossy tribute to an inspiring public figure whose mind was both a blessing and curse. The movie’s crux, however, is the ember of hope that continues to light with support from John’s wife, Alice (Jennifer Connelly), and others as he ultimately regains the ability to function in the academic world. The film goes to show that those with mental illness don’t have to submit to their unjust fate; they can still shine brightly as ever.
3. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
After a stay in a mental health hospital for bipolar disorder treatment, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) moves back home and attempts to regain a sense of normalcy by trying to get his ex-wife back. Along the way, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, who snagged an Oscar for her performance) who helps him in his endeavor. Unsurprisingly, they both end up falling for each other. But this isn’t a celebratory love story as much as it is an insight into the high and low reckonings of life. Cooper’s character falls in and out of stability with his bipolar disorder, wreaking havoc in therapy offices but have moments of profound clarity and sorrow. The movie is a testament to the painful authenticity of life and love, and viewers will laugh as much they’ll cry (really, the movie’s hilarious).
4. The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)
Adolescence is hard enough (a statement most of us can attest to), but the struggles of childhood trauma can often exacerbate these difficulties, leading to psychiatric hospital stays, as Charlie (Logan Lerman) experiences in this coming-of-age movie. Charlie’s mental journey is full of ups and downs as he experiences flashbacks of his aunt molesting him as a little boy. Though a neither particularly romantic nor funny rom-com, the movie highlights the confusion and suffering one goes through and how everyone needs a support system to get through past conflicts, even if they manifest in the present.
5. Inside Out (2015)
Some may argue that this movie is silly and doesn’t portray mental illness, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But this exhaustively inventive animated film, set largely inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley, chronicles her family’s move to San Francisco and places mental health in a fresh, introspective context. It personifies different emotions such as Joy, Disgust, Fear, Anger, and Sadness, who must work together to keep Riley happy and balanced as she copes with moving, though the character representing Sadness causes tears and havoc. It places emphasis on the intricacies of our inner selves and the importance of emotional intelligence in healthy, functioning beings.
In this image-saturated society, the framing of certain issues like mental illness in culture matters immensely. The films described depict mental illness well as they do not glorify illnesses and instead offer a sympathetic perspective on them. They do not perpetuate misconceptions such as that mentally ill people are dangerous or violent and instead detail frank portrayals that offer solace to those who live with it. By making more movies like these, the film industry can do its part to empower communities through positive representation.
Though the industry has a long way to go in promoting more intersectional movies regarding mental illness (as most of the mental health movies right now depict white actors), it has made great strides in cultural sensitivity and destigmatization. And it’s with the hopes of initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Month we push the discussion into a greater, progressive light. But in the interim, feel free to enjoy these movies.