Film is an incredible medium for showing us new perspectives and peering into the minds of people who have lived different lives, and experienced different troubles, from our own.
Many films have often been openly criticised when it comes to tackling the complexities of mental illness on-screen, it’s argued that the portrayals of those living with psychological disorders can sometimes be displayed in a single-minded fashion and solidifying negative stereotypes.
Recent examples have included Joker (2019) with some criticising the violent acts in response to his childhood abuse and isolation, or criticism around the portrayal of Multiple Personality Disorder in Split (2016), as some critics note that films can present those with mental illnesses as alien, anti-social and possibly dangerous compared to ‘normal’ people.
Image credits © MightyWell
The reality is that most of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our lives, whether through personal experience, or through supporting a friend, colleague or family member. UK mental health charity, Mind, has revealed than 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year, and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a ‘common’ mental health problem (anxiety or depression) in any given week.
Despite the controversy around some films, many others are often celebrated for their authenticity, and for providing insight into those living with the debilitating realities of mental illness, helping to educate on how to offer support and empathy.
This ‘World Mental Health Day’ we’re sharing a list of movies that we feel offer respectful, realistic, and relatable presentations of those living with mental health issues, by portraying a true-to-life, sympathetic, meaningful and empowering representation on screen.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Image credits © Columbia Pictures
Winona Ryder stars alongside Angelina Jolie in this late 90s film portraying the complex lives of two young women living in a Psychiatric hospital. The film follows Susanna (Ryder), who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, as she tries to come to terms with her condition and who she really is. ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is unique in portraying the female experience of mental illness, whereas many films focus only on men. This film is powerful by showing how Susanna actively participates in the treatment for her condition, shining light on how mental illness can form only a part of an individual’s identity and lived experience, rather than forming the central definition of it.
Rain Man (1988)
Image credits © MGM/UA Communications Co.
This movie stars Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman as the two brothers, Charlie and Raymond, who are learning to deal with Raymond’s autism. Despite Raymond’s unique way of looking at life challenging the patience of his brother, Charlie is often surprised by Raymond's quick-wit, intelligence and incredible memory skills. The film is uplifting in its presentation of the unbreakable bond between these two brothers, and its release brought autism into the public awareness at a time when little was known about this disorder.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Image credits © Miramax Films
Matt Damon stars as Will Hunting in this 90s classic, playing a janitor working at MIT who experiences low-mood and depression due to an abusive childhood in his past. His mind is sharp and intelligent, and he spends his spare time solving problems and puzzles that his more qualified college student peers can’t seem to figure out. He is brilliant, yet troubled, and through meetings with a therapist (Robin Williams), he starts to understand his depression and begins to move forward in his life. This enlightening film normalises therapy as a means of seeking help for mental health issues, as well as demonstrating the strength of those coming to terms with difficult pasts.
Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Image credits © Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Grief is one of the most commonly experienced mental health challenges that a person will face in their lifetime. Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ follows the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), as he struggles to deal with the loss of his brother who died from a heart-attack. Lee is left to look after his nephew, Patrick, whose mother is absent, and as the film progresses, a series of flashbacks reveal to the audience how Lee’s struggles in the present unearth and exacerbate the traumas and griefs of his past. This quietly realistic portrayal of the confusion and heartbreak of grief shows Lee’s struggle with depression and alcohol dependency and highlights the pressure some people may feel to appear as though they are ‘ok’.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Image credits © Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
This comedy drama, directed by Craig Gillespie, stars Ryan Gosling as the socially anxious and isolated young man, Lars, who engages in a romantic relationship with a doll called Bianca. The film shows the long-term effects of loneliness and unprocessed trauma, as Lars’ fears of intimacy and connection with real people stem from his previous abandonment from the rest of his family. With a healthy and levelling dose of comedy, this film heart-warmingly humanises Lars and his condition. Through his fictional relationship with Bianca, Lars learns how to depend on others and how to open up to true human interaction. This film shows the importance of community and family when it comes to getting back on track, after a breakdown or mental illness, and empowers those living with social anxiety by showing a road to recovery.