When I sat down to write this list, I had every intention of focusing on the “good” part of Hollywood and how art imitates life. Then I watched all of the films on my list again and realized something: there are very few films that accurately portray the torment and havoc a mind wrecked by mental illness experiences. Hollywood sure has no problem sensationalizing the dramatization of mental illness.
Hollywood has made a mediocre attempt at brining to light a subject so taboo that even our government is afraid to acknowledge it. Why is that? What is the stigma with mental health? We have all experienced some form of mental issue in one way or another. Nervous about that job interview? Worried about going away for the weekend? These are all forms of anxiety.
So, what’s the deal? Why is a person without down-syndrome playing a character with down-syndrome? Why is someone who has never had a psychotic episode or break portraying a patient with schizophrenia? Even some of the films on my list have actors without mental illness recreating a character stricken with depression or some other form of psychosis.
The inaccurate portrayal often imagines those with mental illness as weak, fragile or a mad man on the hunt for human flesh. Few films spotlight the illness itself and instead focus on the hero swooping in to save the day. After coming to the realization that Hollywood has done a terrible– if not grotesque– job at accurately portraying mental illness, I compiled a list of films that came close to achieving an accurate depiction. The following list is filled with films that are not afraid to push boundaries and piss people off.
The Snake Pit
A film extremely ahead of its time, The Snake Pit was made during an era where seeing a therapist was a ticket straight to a mental asylum. In 1948, women had few rights and zero privacy when it came to discussing their mental health issues with a physician. Based on the novel of the same title, the film follows the journey of Mary Jane Ward, a woman spiraling through a mental break down. Hollywood recognized this as the most challenging role of its time. Mary Jane Ward slips into a breakdown after moving to a new city, and as the film progresses, so too does her sink into insanity. This film gives a wonderful if not bleak look into a mental break down. One minute Mary Jane is on the verge of being sent home and the next she is triggered by a familiar sight or sound and forced back into psychosis. Not only is this film critically acclaimed, but Mary Jane Ward’s account of her experiences led the way to institutional reform for mental health patients across the US.
I have an ongoing internal struggle with placing this film on this list, not because it is not an accurate portrayal of a brain so engulfed by mental illness it cannot determine reality from fantasy, but because it is yet another madman tale. Nonetheless, Shutter Island is definitely a film focused on mental illness. Edward “Teddy” Daniels is a former U.S. Marshall so deep into a psychosis that he believes he is visiting an institution to find an escaped patient. As the film unravels we discover that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient of the hospital. Laeddis was admitted after murdering his manic-depressive wife after discovering she killed their three children. This film puts a microscope on the hallucinations and misconceptions of a mental break.
A film focused on depression and institutionalization Girl, interrupted claims its spot on this list as a film with an in-depth look at the daily struggle those with mental illnesses face. Susanna (Wynonna Ryder) is checked into an inpatient facility after an attempted suicide. There, she befriends Polly, a schizophrenic; Georgina, a pathological liar; and Daisy, a sex abuse victim with obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as an eating disorder. The film focuses on each woman’s struggle to cope not only with her illness but with the stigma of having a mental illness. Girl, interrupted gives a voice to women afraid to seek treatment or speak out about their illness.
Little Miss Sunshine
This film hits several mental health points: body image; depression; drug abuse; and mourning. A film that is not afraid to shy away from controversy, Little Miss Sunshine centers around a family down on their luck. After a failed suicide attempt, Frank (Steve Carell) comes to stay with his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette), an overworked mother of two, her husband, a failed motivational speaker, and his drug addicted father. As they journey to a pageant for daughter Olive, the family is forced to cope with underlying problems and must work as a support system for each other to make it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The film gives an accurate if not depressing look at depression and addiction.
Finally on this list an animated film. I went in knowing little about this film apart from it was animated and geared toward a younger audience. Though Inside Out is advertised as a children’s film it addresses issues most adults are afraid to address themselves. We see an inside glimpse of Riley Anderson’s mind and her emotions Joy, Fear, Disgust and Anger. As Riley turns eleven, her parents move to another city and Riley’s new, poor experiences force her former happy experiences to slowly fade away. Joy rushes to save the day but is bounced off track and the other emotions must step in to recover Riley’s experiences. How true it is that, as we age joy slowly tends to drift away and happiness is but a memory. Grab a box of tissues because this film will have you on a roller coaster of emotions and wanting to see a therapist to recover those once blessed childhood memories.