Over the years, a lot of films have tackled the issue of mental illness and presented this very serious subject in different ways. Deciding to base a film around a disorder or illness is a bold and challenging move, because it is important to get the details right and accurately depict it, otherwise the film simply will not work. It is also important to not offend the viewers or make it look as though the movie is poking fun at the illness or people suffering from it. There is a fine line that has to be walked here, and certain movies have managed to effectively capture the emotional and psychological core of a mental disorder in a manner way that works for the film and audiences alike. Here are some examples of those films:
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards, takes an irreverent and unusually empathetic look at bipolar disorder. With both the protagonists dealing with this mental illness, the film revolves around the rollercoaster of emotions that control their lives, and presents their struggle in a manner that feels honest and raw. The romantic comedy element provides moments of much needed comic relief and a very human story for audiences to follow and actively engage with, indirectly communicating that an illness such as bipolar disorder does not have to define everything about you. The underlying message of the film is that a mental disorder is not something to be embarrassed about, but rather something that we can embrace and manage and deal with.
Black Swan (2010)
This highly acclaimed psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman follows a young ballerina’s descent into madness in the competitive world of professional ballet. The protagonist, Nina, shows elements of an anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive behaviors. She also exhibits self-injurious behavior and signs of an eating disorder, and also dabbles with substance abuse. As the film progresses, she begins to have psychotic breaks and symptoms of schizophrenia as a result of emotional abuse, stress and various other factors. The line between reality and hallucinations gets increasingly blurred as the film culminates to a climactic ending. The film uses a lot of creative artistic license in its portrayal of mental disorders, but the intertwining of the psychodrama and the story is haunting and brilliant.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
This film, based on a true story, portrays the life of a person living with schizophrenia in a manner that feels honest and truthful, though some say the Hollywood version of Josh Nash’s life does use some creative artistic license when it comes to medical realities. However, mental health experts applaud the film for creating a better understanding of the disorder and reinforcing the idea that being a genius does not preclude someone from having a mental illness such a schizophrenia. The film observes the impact that the intrusiveness of his symptoms has on his daily life and relationships with his family, friends and colleagues. The hallucinations that his disorder triggers and the difficulty of living with the condition are presented with emotion and empathy. The fact that the disorder does not become clear till about half way through adds a bit of shock value, as viewers are forced to reevaluate past events.
Fight Club (1999)
This cult classic, tackles the idea of Dissociative Identity Disorder using a lot of creative freedom and artistic license. In the film, the disorder is triggered not by childhood or emotional trauma (as would most likely be the case in real life), but rather through the protagonist’s feeling trapped and stuck in the structure of modern society, which literally causes him to dissociate. The illness is used as a means to comment upon the intense psychological damage caused by consumerism and our corporate, materialistic culture. An important parallel between the depicted disorder and the real disorder is the idea that the alternate identities are present as a coping mechanism for the individual. Therefore, a stronger, more confidant personality takes over. Overall, the film uses the disorder as a metaphor for humankind and for major shock-inducing plot twist at the end.
Looking at all these films, I gathered that when depicting a mental illness, it is certainly important to understand the symptoms and depict them as realistically as possible, but the filmmaker may also make use of creative license and artistic freedom to keep the storyline interesting and engaging for audiences. I also found that the unpredictability that comes with mental illness makes it great fodder for plot twists. In many films, the mental illness is used to build the framework for a major shock that would surprise audiences and catch them off guard. In my short film too, I am using the mental illness to create a shocking plot twist at the end.