By Brendan McLean, Communications Coordinator
There will always be disagreements and discrepancies among Top 10 lists, no matter what the topic. Everybody has an opinion. When we asked our NAMI Facebook page fans what movies made the biggest impact on them when it came to films that put mental illness in the spotlight, we received a wide array of answers. Take a look:
10. Canvas (2006)
Canvas is one of only a few movies able to encapsulate the emotional trials that a family living with mental illness faces. Chris Marino (Devon Gearhart) is a 10-year-old boy growing up in a small, seaside community in Florida. Chris's father John (Joe Pantoliano) is a construction worker who is struggling to hold the family together under difficult circumstances: his wife and Chris' mother, Mary (Marcia Gay Harden), has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and while they've been pursuing a variety of treatment options, Mary's condition continues to slowly deteriorate as she hears phantom sounds, has hallucinations and becomes increasingly paranoid.
The year is 1954 and World War II veteran and current federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) set off to Shutter Island, a water-bound mental hospital created to provide a place for those with a history of committing criminal acts and mental illness. Daniels and his partner have been asked to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients. However, as Teddy spends more time on the island, more questions arise than answers. As the happenings on the island become more bizarre, Daniel’s handle on reality begins to unravel. While the ending does appear to blinside you on first viewing, it allows for an interesting discussion on the treatment of mental illness.
Benny & Joon is a rather fantastical story about car-mechanic Benny (Aidan Quinn) who struggles to take care of sister, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), who lives with mental illness. Midway through the film, we are introduced to the true star, and leading quirky character of the film, Sam (Johnny Depp). After losing a bet, Benny is forced to now house Sam along with his sister. Sam’s Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin routines keep him as far from reality as Joon often appears to be. Finding entertainment and enjoyment in the simple, yet oddball things in life, Sam develops a connection with Joon. While Depp’s performance does seem magical, especially as he brings Keaton’s mannerisms to life, the topic of Joon’s mental illness is not thoroughly discussed. The audience is merely greeted with and left with the notion that Joon lives with a mental illness. As a consequence, the movie is left with a feeling of a degree of insignificance. But regardless, Sam’s eccentric nature and the influence he has on Joon make this movie an incredibly fun watch, with a few sentimental moments as well.
Depicting the story of three women in three separate generations, The Hours tells the struggles that each faces in their own time. The first of the three women is famous author Virginia Wolff (Nicole Kiddman) who wrote Mrs. Dalloway, the common thread that ties all three women together. Wolff is in the process of writing the novel; a troubled young mother (Julianne Moore) in 1951 is reading the novel and a woman (Meryl Streep) in 2001 is acting like the character Mrs. Dalloway from the book. The theme of mental illness is paramount throughout the film, as each of the three women is, to some degree, living with depression and thoughts of suicide. The remarkable acting, especially by Kiddman, helps give life to every single moment and make the powerful themes reverberate even more.
Depicting the true-life story of Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a former cello virtuoso, and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a journalist in Los Angeles, The Soloist portrays the working relationship and friendship formed between the two. As a young man, Ayers was a student at the prestigious Jullliard. But in his third year he experienced a mental breakdown and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. After living with his sister for a few years in Cleveland, his mother died, and he set out to Los Angeles where his father supposedly lived. Unable to locate him, Ayers becomes homeless. This is where Lopez meets him. Unable to understand how such a brilliant musician can be living on the streets and not performing in a symphony hall, Lopez sets out on a mission to help Ayers. And as with all similar movies, as Lopez begins to learn about Ayers, he begins to discover himself as well. The Soloist touches on the tough but important subject of how many living with mental illness can become homeless when they do not continue to receive help.
Set in 1967, Girl, Interrupted follows the 18-year-old Susanna (Winona Ryder) after she is sent to psychiatric institution for a half-serious suicide attempt where she attempts to cure a headache by taking 50 aspirin with a bottle of vodka. Unlike many of her fellow classmates, Susanna does not have any future plans to go to college after she graduates high school. Apart from a contrived climax, the film largely is well-constructed and thought-out, although it does not have the metaphorical or powerful symbolism that a film like this, could and should have. Ryder’s performance as a neurotic young-female is what helps this film from stereotypical movie that delves into the topic of institutionalization in a mental hospital. However, while Girl, Interrupted does a good job portraying the topic of mental illness, there is nothing particularly novel or ground-breaking in the film’s execution that hasn’t been addressed in previous films.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may be the most famous of all films depicting a mental institution and mental illness. R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is sent to a mental institution for an evaluation because of a crime he committed. Realizing that the individuals in the institution become more focused on becoming functional in the outside world, MucMurphy establishes himself as the leader in rebellious against the oppressive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). While some view some of the actions and depictions of the characters as stigmatizing, for others Cuckoo’s Nest ultimately provides well-developed character descriptions that allows for them to be seen as any person, with or without mental illness; people with feelings, thoughts, goals and unique qualities. Furthermore, the portrayal of the institution may not be a positive example of how those living with mental illness should be cared for, many believe it does advocate that it should be the way. Based on a book of the same name by Ken Kesey from 1962, Cuckoo’s Nest describes an institution as many appeared in that era. The ending of the film, both metaphorically and literally ultimately reveals the devastation that this method of care for those living with mental illness has.
Ordinary People tells the story of family whose underlying problems and struggles come to forefront in the aftermath of the death of one of their sons. Their other son who was present at the scene of his brother’s death cannot shake the grief and pain of situation and attempts suicide. As their son begins psychiatric treatment, the emotional journey in the family only begins. Each family member experiencing various aspects of the difficult nature of trying to care for someone you love with mental illness. In particular, Conrad (Timonthy Hutton), the son, is seen as an outcast at school because of his mental illness and suicide attempt. The struggle between the father (Donald Sutherland) and his wife (Mary Tyler Moore) and the ability to each family member to love one another creates a turbulent scene in the all too stereotypically matter-of-fact and easy suburban life.
Perhaps the most individual film on the list The Fisher King tells the story of shock radio DJ Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges). One fan in particular takes Jack’s rants about humanity to heart and goes on horrible rampage, murdering innocent patrons at a restaurant. Horrified by what he caused, Jack sinks into a three-year depression. Hitting rock bottom, Jack attempts to commit suicide. To his rescue comes a crazed but witty homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), who tells Jack he's destined for great things—all he has to do is find the Holy Grail (conveniently located in midtown Manhattan) and save Parry's soul. As the story unfolds, we learn that Parry is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, and importantly the event that helped caused them, that will tie him and Jack together.
Telling the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician, A Beautiful Mind, captures the difficult life that an individual first experiencing schizophrenia faces. Beginning in the 1950s, A Beautiful Mind follows the path of Nash from a promising career, being recruited by the CIA to help in code-breaking activities, to the powerful delusions that he begins to experience and change his life forever. Although the film does romanticize mental illness, it does reveal the ambiguous nature of mental illness; it can affect anyone regardless of intelligence, prominence or any other personal trait.