What Makes A Film “About” Mental Health?

So, I’d like to keep up more content here. The question is, what kind of content?

My friend Jim actually devoted part of his Voices & Visions site to writing about movies and mental health, and we’ve both written about movies there. Most relevant to this discussion is my review of Inside The Rain, which played the festival last year. Even though I made it a highlight, I don’t think enough people saw it, and I’d love to show it on the big screen at some point. https://www.voicesvisions.net/reviews/insidetherain

For some reason it’s been hard for me to think of a lot of films to write about there. Let’s face it, Hollywood isn’t usually all that kind to mental illness. It’s often portrayed broadly, or as too quirky, or as a magical savant thing, if not a dangerous thing. I should probably go looking for some more, though.

One interesting thing about Inside The Rain is I have bipolar disorder and as I note in my review, many aspects of the main character’s portrayal differ drastically from mine. I had to check myself while watching it and remind myself that everyone’s experience of mental illness is different—even with the same diagnosis. It would have been pretty brazen for me to tell the young filmmaker Aaron Fisher, who so bravely made and starred in the film to express his own struggles with bipolar disorder, that he somehow “got it wrong” (and there ended up being a few things that definitely rang true for me as well).

After I watched the incredible French Dispatch, I went on a kick re-watching all of Wes Anderson’s older films, and I could see subtle themes of mental illness in almost all of them. I thought maybe I was just coming off the festival and reading into them too much when I had the sudden realization that his very first film, Bottle Rocket, begins with a character “escaping the nuthouse” and ends with a reference to the nuthouse (the term they use in the film). That’s the kind of thing that barely made a blip on my radar when I saw it as a young film student so many years ago and of course seems so much more significant now with my own diagnosis and interest in mental illness.

I suppose there is an interesting piece that could be written about the main character Anthony Adams’s process of recovery from “exhaustion” in Bottle Rocket. But that may actually be reading too much into it—kind of what you’d call my own “interpretive reading.” Mental illness is latent in the film, but I don’t think that’s what Bottle Rocket is predominantly about—not in the same way this year’s Seeking Oblivion was about Jeremy’s recovery from “the nuthouse.”

That got me thinking, as well, about the whole mission of Mental Filmness. What constitutes an “authentic” or “empathetic” portrayal of mental illness? Is it something that you can’t define—you just know it when you see it? And when does the theme of mental health become dominant enough to make it a film about “mental health”? And isn’t a lot of this a little subjective, anyway?

But here’s the surprising thing: since we instituted a submission fee, about 90 percent of the time filmmakers give us exactly what we’re looking for. That actually makes the selection process much more difficult, but diversity definitely plays a big role. Diversity of culture, diversity of the mental illnesses portrayed, and diversity of tone and genre are just come of the many considerations. Film is an art and there’s no avoiding being subjective in some ways, which is why having a jury and screening process is very helpful. And still, the audience always surprises me in some way with their votes.

As my experience with Inside The Rain re-affirmed, everyone’s experience with mental illness is different. I operate from the presumption that a film is “authentic” or “realistic” unless it blatantly crosses a line into being exploitative or condescending or something, which rarely happens. The Mental Filmness films really do feel much more genuine than Hollywood movies and paint with much more subtle and interesting strokes. That’s part of what makes them special.

Aaron Fisher and Ellen Toland star in Inside The Rain, a unique film about living with bipolar disorder.

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