It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Ned Vizzini (based on the book by)
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Viola Davis, Emma Roberts, Jeremy Davies, Jim Gaffigan, Matthew Maher
It's Kind of a Funny Story is the charming and quirky story of life on a psychiatric ward, explored through the eyes of a troubled teenager. Aptly named, the film brings humour to what, for many, equates to the most challenging time of their lives, and recognises the human element behind every diagnosis.
After deciding not to jump from a bridge and end his life, 16 year-old Craig checks himself into a psychiatric unit, where he finds himself spending 5 days mixed amongst the child and adult patients. In these five days we learn all about Craig, including the tortured love he feels for his best friend's girlfriend, the intense pressures of school applications, and the neuroses of his mother and judgment of his father. What Craig learns alongside us, is the normalcy of such anxieties, the importance of not letting them rule your life, and when it is the right time to let them go.
Mental health units are often portrayed as bleak places, but It's Kind of a Funny Story seeks to invert that perception, instead drawing on the positive aspects of therapy and group participation. This is sometimes done subtly, such as through a facetious and hilariously realistic back-and-forth during a comical group therapy session. Other times, the film takes a more abstract and extravagant approach, particularly with one fantastic re-enactment of a famous (and brilliantly appropriate) song which is impossible to dislike. It is a film forever on the move, sometimes flashing back, other times exploring Craig's imagination, all while tactfully exploring parts of the human condition that many would rather not talk about.
Keir Gilchrist is a spectacular lead as Craig, carrying some weighty subject matter for an actor so young, and confidently summoning teenage vulnerability and angst, and the confusion that each bring. His journey is a short one by timescale, but represents one which all youths much travel in their own time, without wallowing in self-pity or indulging in labelling. As he learns and grows through his time in hospital, the change we see in him is astounding, and is both easy and enjoyable to track.
Zach Galifianakis gives a career topping performance as Benny, a character to which he can still bring his signature zany and juvenile comedic style, but one which is married with a deeper sense of tragedy and despair. It is a role for which Galifianakis is not typically known, and one which offers him the opportunity to use skills which many of his more famous performances have not called upon. Acting as a friend and mentor to Craig, Benny embodies the situation of many individuals who need a little extra help in order to manage their difficulties, and demonstrates the enduring capacity for fun even during the darkest points of life.
Emma Roberts also gives a superb supporting performance, acting as one of Craig's guides towards his eventual 'recovery'. Her damaged Noelle's past is only hinted at, but she often acts as a sobering insight into the depths that mental ill-health can all too often lead people into, acting as a confronting reality check for both Craig and the audience. A further exploration of a her character would have served as another fascinating and eye-opening facet to this film, but one which would have, admittedly, drastically altered the tone of the film. Meanwhile, Viola Davis is typically mesmeric as the warm and insightful Dr Minerva who also helps Craig through his time in hospital, offering perhaps some of the most impactful words of wisdom within the film.
Here is a film about recovery, and how other people can often be the key to that recovery as they help us to recognise what in our lives matters. Through dynamic and innovative film-making, Boden and Fleck have produced an inspiring and soul-stirring examination of youthful turmoil, profiled against the backdrop of mental illness. Few films tackle the subject better, and even fewer with such optimism.
In one line: It's Kind of a Funny Story will surprise you, intrigue you and inspire you, all through a full house of dedicated performances and excitable story-telling.