The TIFF roster this year seemed speckled with a large number of mental health stories; Kristin Wiig portrays a character with borderline personality disorder in Welcome to Me, Ryan Reynolds’ character lives with schizophrenia in The Voices, Jennifer Aniston’s character lives with chronic depression in Cake, Al Pacino’s character battles suicide in The Humbling, Reese Witherspoon’s character copes with addiction in Wild, and Love & Mercy paints a portrait of Brian Wilson’s life with paranoid schizophrenia… just to name a few that’d I’ve been hearing about.
If I could have managed it, I would have spent the week with as many of these films as I could. The representation and portrayal of mental health in the media has become an interesting and important subject of exploration for me. As you probably know, mental health isn’t easily diagnosed. It often cannot be seen or explained by whoever is experiencing it. It can be completely debilitating and life-altering and, at times, it may seem like there is nothing that can be done about it. No one that can help. And as valid as all these emotions are, it’s important to
I am always hesitant to ‘get excited’ about certain films about mental health. While a film like Silver Linings Playbook recently shone light on mental health in mainstream cinema, it’s a light and airy story that waywardly falls into the formulaic rom-com skeleton where love – and dancing – makes everything better. In the film, Bradley Cooper’s character lives with bipolar disorder and is being released from the psychiatric ward when he meets Jennifer Lawrence’s character who has her own battle with mental health. Robert DeNiro, Cooper’s father in the film, also shows obsessive-compulsive tendencies. While I’m happy to see that these common diagnoses are being portrayed on a humanistic level, it’s important to portray and discuss them in a way that doesn’t leave them hanging. Mental health will still be there in the end. In any case, TIFF14 has nothing to do with Silver Linings Playbook.
Here are the films I saw this year and some tiny thoughts on a few of them:
Welcome to Me
Shira Piven | USA | Language: English
Kristin Wiig is Alice Kleig, a woman living with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and uses the money to start her very own talk show called ‘Welcome to Me.’ It’s a humourous and touching portrait of a woman who is able to live out her dreams without the restraint of affording them. Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks (and Scooby-Doo – am I the only adult that loves this movie???) plays Wiig’s bestie and it’s a perfect fit. Neither Wiig or Cadellini are in their twenties but, believe it or not, Welcome to Me depicts their friendship in a tangible and true way. They have jobs and goals and they rely on each other. Their friendship isn’t revolving around their ticking clock to have kids or their recent divorces. The best thing about Welcome to Me was that it never took advantage of Alice’s diagnosis, one that is made clear she’d had for a while and has been able to live with successfully. There was never a moment that we questioned Alice’s state of mind, but also never a moment where we thought her diagnosis kept her from doing the things she wanted to do. The film made sure we were on her side. Alice, for all purposes, isn’t any different from you or I. I truly identified with Alice and love her for all her quirks. And I, too, would definitely come out in a swan boat during the intro to my own talk show… if I ever had one.
After the show a friend came up to me and said, “She actually reminded me of you except without the personality disorder and narcissism.” She was trying to be polite, of course, but I was flattered. Alice is an awesome woman, and I’m happy that this film was made with humour but also awareness.
Love & Mercy
Director: Bill Phland | USA | Language: English
It’s about time someone made a film about Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson is the mastermind behind The Beach Boys and musical composition in general. He is still alive and was even at the premiere of Love & Mercy last week with his wife Melinda (and I wish I was at that screening!). Because Brian is still alive, the film isn’t an homage or biopic or memory of a man. It’s an important story of someone still living and breathing and making the best of his life with paranoid schizophrenia. To do this – and successfully – Love & Mercy is comprised of two story lines: the then and the now. Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson then, and John Cusack portrays him now. It’s a brilliant weaving of time and story that let’s us slowly discover the difficulties of fame, anxiety, and family history, all intertwined with a life-altering diagnosis.
Like Welcome to Me (above), I felt Love & Mercy let us into Brian Wilson’s discovery of schizophrenia in a tangible way. For a large part of the film, we knew he heard voices, but we didn’t know why. Of course, if you know the story of Brian’s life, you already had all the answers, but Love & Mercy does for him what others may not know already. Brian Wilson lived with schizophrenia for years before it was diagnosed and treated in a healthy way. He was taken advantage of in his addictions and illness and is pulled out of it only by someone who wanted the opposite for him.
When you can’t think clearly, or you react strongly or differently than others, the circumstances are not always obvious. Love & Mercy’s depiction of a rising and falling star in the hands of a volatile mental state weave creation and belief and hope into an entertaining and important picture. And the soundtrack – well that’s just great.
As an aside, the film also lends important information to the 3 years Brian Wilson spent in bed, as sung about in the Barenaked Ladies’ song: Lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did. Well I-I-I’m…
The Gate (Le temps des aveux)
Director: Régis Wargnier | France/Belgium/Cambodia | Language: French/Khmer
Set in a French Indonesian colony, The Gate depicts the era of the Khmer Rouge in 1970’s Cambodia. What defines friendship and truth in a world that believes you are guilty until proven – or believed – otherwise is the true story of Francois Bizot, a French archeologist preserving Buddhist records who is captured by the Khmer Rouge for espionage. Politically driven by one man’s struggle, The Gate waivers between truth and belief, calling definitions of friendship and survival into question while taking us on an emotionally cornering journey.
It’s a tough film to take in with the caveat that nobody can predict the future, but it’s up to us to build.
Director: Ole Christian Madsen | Denmark/Croatia/Sweden | Language: Danish
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead | USA | Language: English
Hungry Hearts (Il bambino indaco)
Director: Saverio Costanzo | Italy | Language: English
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve | France | Language: French/English
I Am Here (Wo Jiu Shi Wo)
Director: Fan Lixin | China | Language: Mandarin Chinese/Mandarin
Directors: Matthew Kennedy, Adam Brooks | Canada | Language: English