When it comes to general discussion and awareness, “mental illness” is painted with a broad brush. Somehow we have one month – May – to be “aware” of mental health. And people will talk about how important it is, and use words like “self-care,” without any measurable or tangible examples of what that means. And yet, if you talk, specifically, about depression, or tell someone “I’m depressed” outside of a doctor or therapist’s office, it feels uneasy. Why? We emphasize that mental health as a concept is important, but when it comes to what that means, how that shows up in our everyday lives, and what it looks like from person to person, we exercise restraint. We speak in code (“I’m going through a tough time”). We tiptoe around the specifics. Is it a lack of concentration? Lack of sleep? Bouts of crying? Feelings of hopelessness? Intrusive thought patterns? The more we dodge the subject, the more alienating it feels when we do feel depressed because we start to feel like no one else feels this way.
So we seek out representation in art. It’s perhaps easiest to find in books, a bit more obscure in music, and a bit more in-depth in certain television series (Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and You’re the Worst, to name a few). But I’m more interested in how it’s been represented in film. Below I explore 10 examples of depictions of depression in film, what they get right, and where, at times, they might miss. The list does not have a particular order, but it does lead up to the #1 depiction of depression in a film that I’ve seen to-date.
10-9. Prozac Nation (2001) and Girl, Interrupted (1999)
I lump these two together as they are both adaptations of memoirs. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, published in 1994, was very of-its-time, an angry, jaded portrait of a young Gen X-er, a child of divorce, an addict, an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Girl, Interrupted was a young woman’s experience in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. The film adaptation of Girl, Interrupted served more as a platform for launching Angelina Jolie as a star rather than a portrayal of a woman’s struggle with mental illness. Meanwhile, by the time Prozac Nation, starring Christina Ricci as Elizabeth, came out in 2001, the novelty of the book had worn off. What these films had in common is that both of these young women had an angst-ridden form of depression, manifesting as disillusionment, an opposition to authority, and delinquent behavior. Susanna (Winona Ryder) of Girl, Interrupted, rebels with sex, alcohol, and a cold disposition to her caretakers. Elizabeth rebels, likewise, with drugs and alcohol. It’s important to note that both of these films took place before depression and psychiatric meds were part of the general lexicon, and carried more shame than they do now (which, I mean, you know). But neither of these films truly feel like a depiction of a young person struggling with depression as much as they feel like a drama about addiction (Prozac Nation), or a vehicle to showcase a bunch of strong supporting performances (Girl, Interrupted). Neither of the tension in either of these films feel particularly rooted in depression, and, in both cases, the filmmakers keep the lead at arm’s length. We don’t feel their depression; all we see is them looking, well, frankly quite beautiful and rather annoyed, staring blankly into the distance.
8. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Calling Silver Linings Playbook a romantic comedy is a little reductive, and yes, it does hit some romcom beats, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t include moments of honesty and pathos. Playbook stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, a young man who has just finished inpatient treatment for manic depression and a violent episode. He finds an ally in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has also gone through psychiatric treatment. I think this film does two things in particular very well. Like the next entry, it shows how mental illness impacts family and loved ones who are trying to do and say the right thing. We see the strain that caring for Pat has put on his parents, played impeccably by Jackie Weaver and Robert De Niro. His violent episode, his middle-of-the-night rants. Additionally, the scene at the dinner table where Tiffany and Pat start listing all the meds they’ve been on is superb. It’s as though they’re talking in their own language, charting the timeline of their lives based on what meds they were on at the time. It removes the stigma of taking psychiatric meds, and adds a bit of humor to their own personal trauma. While Pat and Tiffany had only just met, it’s like these two people already have an inside joke, or more accurately, it’s like medications are mutual friends they both have similar stories about. They establish an instant rapport and they ping-pong back and forth, naming their prescriptions. It is weird how they pronounce “Trazodone” (a sleep med), though. They say it “takes the light right out of your eyes” and pronounce it “TRAZE-a-doan.” I’ve never heard it pronounced that way, but I did have a nurse once who called it “The Traz.”
7. Ordinary People (1980)
Another adaptation of a book (and not the last one in this list), Ordinary People was a small family drama about young Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and his return home after inpatient psychiatric treatment for a suicide attempt. His mom, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), and dad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) have different approaches toward raising Conrad. Beth has grown cold toward him, particularly since Conrad was the surviving member of a sailing accident, which killed his older brother. Beth wants to stay in control, wants to restore their family, and wants to gloss over Conrad’s suicide attempt. Ordinary People also has one of the best movie therapists ever, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), who helps Conrad address his survivor’s guilt. The “it’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting takes clear inspiration from scenes between Conrad and Dr. Berger. Moore won the Oscar for her portrayal of a grieving mother who, instead of getting in touch with her feelings and trying to understand her son, opts to shut down as an act of self-preservation. Understandably, it takes a toll on both the relationship with Conrad and with her husband. The performances in this film are all astounding, and I think everyone can relate to the dynamic that Conrad has with his parents. Beth resents Conrad, is candid about how she loved his older brother more, and feels shame about Conrad’s depression. It feels like a mark against her character; after all, she grew up in the 1950s, and is trying to model a happy American household, even if just by appearance. Meanwhile, Calvin wants to try and understand Conrad, and wants to be open with others about how their family is struggling.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was my favorite book in high school. My friend and I held that little lime-green paperback close to our hearts. We saw ourselves in the lead character, Charlie. He has depression. He takes meds. To Charlie, high school is a hostile, unwelcoming environment, and like us, he looks to music to escape, to understand. We also passed the time formulating mix tapes for each other, giving each other locker combinations for easy access. The high school of Perks is in clear juxtaposition to the high school films of the 1980s, where outsiders and misfits were still, generally, pretty popular, attractive, or accepted. Here, Charlie is a loner who spends most of his time in his bedroom. When the film opens, he doesn’t have a sidekick, or anybody. The novel was so personal to Chbosky that he ended up adapting and directing the film adaptation in 2012. Logan Lerman played Charlie, and the two misfits who take him under their wings were played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. While the adaptation loses some of the novel’s subtlety, it clearly captures the alienation of being young and feeling like an observer in your own life, rather than a participant. Charlie is similar to Conrad from Ordinary People in that his depression develops as a result of tragedy. For Conrad, it was the death of his brother; for Charlie, it’s repressed sexual abuse and the suicide of his best friend. While depression develops in these two characters as a result of trauma, sometimes depression itself can be the trauma.
5. Two Days, One Night (2014)
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) takes depression and anxiety, a private and personal issue, and makes it public – in this case, with factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her coworkers. Sandra returns from a medical leave of absence and has to fight to keep her job at a small solar panel factory, relying on the sympathy of her coworkers. Navigating any mental illness is extremely hard, but navigating your job and colleague relationships on top of that is also difficult. Who can you be candid with? Do you have to talk in code? Will this affect how people (especially your boss) think of you in the future? I talked to a mother who experienced postpartum depression and the message she got at her job from another female colleague was not to tell anybody, especially her boss. It’s stifling, to put the work in to feel better and to have it front of mind every minute of every day and still have to maintain composure and get your work done on time. Sandra has strong family support – loving daughters, a supportive husband – but she still has to fight for sympathy and understanding of her illness as she pleads with colleagues to keep her position.
4. About a Boy (2002)
Another romcom, and yet another adaptation of a book, but a character with depression is not at the center of About A Boy. It’s a supporting role played by none other than Toni Collette. About A Boy is about a bachelor, Will (Hugh Grant) who develops an unusual friendship with a young outsider, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Marcus is shy and awkward and doesn’t have any positive male role models in his life. His closest friend is his mother, Fiona (Collette), who suffers from bouts of depression. For me, there is one specific scene that stands out. It’s bittersweet and funny and so true. Fiona is particularly depressed one day, and when she goes to the cupboard to pull out a cereal bowl, it’s stuck. And it causes her to weep even harder. Small inconveniences don’t phase us when we’re well, we can laugh them off, but when you’re depressed, it feels like “See? Nothing goes right.” I don’t know if the script called for her to weep as she wrestled with a cereal bowl; I like to think it was Collette’s personal choice for the character, and it works wonderfully. I think of it often.
3. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Sofia Coppola came out swinging with her directorial debut The Virgin Suicides in 1999, an adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel. With an established style, a remarkable cast, and a moody soundtrack by the French band Air, Coppola captured the listlessness and boredom of being a teenager. The elusive Lisbon sisters, including the rebellious Lux (Kirsten Dunst), live under repressive and religious parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods). After the youngest sister, Cecilia, takes her own life, their parents keep the children essentially under quarantine. The assumption, of course, is that it’s the outside world and its influences that make them miserable and to keep them home is to protect them. There’s even a darkly funny sequence when the mother is pulling away Lux’s plastic crate of records to throw into the fire (it’s the music!). Lux protests that she must keep her Aerosmith record. The sisters have some contact with the outside world, and rebellious Lux manages a tryst with heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), but their parents refuse to take any accountability for the influence they exert, to the detriment of their daughters. Coppola brings a deep melancholy to the summer setting in 1970s suburbia. The Lisbon sisters are all clouded by depression, but they’re also beautiful and mysterious, as observed by the main characters – a group of neighborhood boys – in both the book and film. One wonders what the story would have been like if the sisters were telling it.
2 – 1. Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011)
One thing Lars Von Trier does well – among many – is the nuanced performances he gets from his actors. Between Antichrist and Melancholia, the stakes are extremely high, exaggerated, and melodramatic, but the performances are not. In Antichrist, a married couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) lose their son in a tragic accident, and grieve in self-destructive and violent ways. In Melancholia, it’s literally the end of the world, and depressed bride Justine (Dunst again, because she’s fantastic) could not be fazed. You can see depression in the way Dunst carries herself, her posture. In her wedding dress, she sits on top of stacked chairs, staring at her feet. Dunst embodies the apathy of depression, the numbness. It’s her party, she’s the center, and she doesn’t care. When she throws the bouquet, it’s like she’s saying “fuck it, here you go.” She wants to be away in a dark room, sleeping. She avoids her husband. She screws a random wedding guest. “What did you expect,” she tells her husband (Alexander Skarsgard), who is frustrated with her behavior. He knew she was sick, but they carried on with the extravagant castle wedding anyway. But it’s this same darkness that makes her more prepared for the literal end of the world, in the form of a colliding planet called Melancholia, which sets her apart from sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Melancholia was Von Trier’s second film in what has been unofficially referred to as the “The Depression Trilogy.” Antichrist was the first (Nymphomaniac was third). In Antichrist, husband and wife grieve for their son, who fell out the window to his death while they had sex in the shower. The wife experiences atypical grief, which frustrates the husband, a therapist. He pulls her out of psychiatric care and insists on performing his own psychotherapy, isolating her in the woods and gaslighting her. It pushes her to her limits, causing her to turn manic, and the wilderness around them starts to turn equally sinister. It’s a grueling ordeal that shows how physical and all-encompassing grief and depression is. There are a lot of dark and shocking scenes in Antichrist, but they all serve a purpose. Von Trier wants to show you a world that feels like how these characters feel in their head. They feel bad, they feel guilt, they feel regret, and they want to hurt themselves and each other. And they do.
I like Antichrist and Melancholia equally, but Dunst in Melancholia was the first on-screen depiction of depression and mental illness that mirrored my own experience. There’s sadness in films, which can be shown with tears, screams, with sobs. We know what that looks like. A kid can identify what a sad person looks like. And Justine certainly looks sad, but to the untrained eye, she might look bored or tired. Everyone else sees a person who is numb, who doesn’t know how to feel, who is tired of putting on a charade. Her face looks frozen and unaffected. She disappears, to be alone, to rest, to be in a quiet room with the buzz of her thoughts, even if they’re intrusive and repetitive. Her husband insists that their lavish wedding came with a deal and that the deal was that Justine be happy as if being happy was a command to respond to, like a dog. When you’re depressed, physical sensations feel different. You feel pain differently, hear music differently, taste food differently. In a scene where Claire prepares meatloaf for Justine, Justine remarks that it “tastes like ashes.”
In the film’s second half, when the end of the world is nigh, Justine simply accepts its fate. “The earth is evil,” she says. “We don’t need to grieve for it.” Justine has severe depression that has robbed her of time, of joy, of hearing music, of tasting food. But in Melancholia, Justine’s illness is a strength that gives her resiliency in the face of inevitable tragedy.