And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
- from Changes by David Bowie, as quoted in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) can’t quite articulate why he feels he might be suicidal—not outwardly, anyway. In his imagination, he knows exactly why. Between girl troubles, entrance exams for a NY prep school, disconnection from his parents—George (Jim Gaffigan), a workaholic father and Lynn (Lauren Graham), his simpering mother—and other transient issues, he feels his walls closing in.
Craig checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. Realizing how serious some of the mentally ill really are, he begins to have second thoughts and tries to check himself out. Instead, his psychiatrist, Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis), insists that five days minimum is a mandatory evaluation period before he is deemed not a danger to himself. Instead, he meets the varied residents of the ward in 3 North, including Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, in the only role in which I’ve ever been able to tolerate him), a schizophrenic black man, an acidic Hasidic (he did a little too much LSD) with hypersensitivity to sound, an agoraphobic Muslim (Bernard White) and Noelle (Emma Roberts), a cutter whom he comes to adore. They all encourage him toward his real passion: art. I chose the word “passion” over “talent” here because talent has become too associated with the concept of marketability, undermining the purpose of pursuing one’s passion—to have fun.
As I mentioned, Chris has a father whose “client crises” are of greater importance than time with his own son that he can never get back. This isn’t an uncommon or new theme, nor should my observation of that fact be considered criticism. Steven Spielberg had a recurring theme of separated, divorced or divorcing parents, reflecting what he went through as a child. E.T. was less about aliens than Elliott’s sense of alienation in a fractured household in the California suburbs.
Among the patients, including Bobby, he learns that he loves to draw, to sing—a rousing fantasy sequence of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s “Under Pressure” in which Craig overcomes stage fright by imagining himself as Mercury, complete with tight pants and microphone stand arm triumphantly raised, upside-down, in the air.
Why is Craig convincing himself that he has to get into that management prep school. Doesn’t a management prep school run contrary to the fundamental reason why Harvard has no undergraduate business program? A management degree is useless without experience. I would know. But never mind.
Parallel to The Social Network, this film ruminates in relationships, between friends, between strangers, between love interests. But if I had to choose from the acerbic (read: tactless) wit of Mark Zuckerberg and the deceptively insecure, actually extroverted, Justin Long-patter of Craig, I would choose the latter. Such kids are deserving of and need our help, compassion and empathy, especially when they’re compelled to hide their symptoms which, in teen circles, make them easy targets for shattering ridicule.
In places the story appears insensitive at a time where teen suicides weigh on the national conscience. Take, for instance, a peculiarly unconstructive activities coordinator who negatively calls attention to Craig’s “artist’s block” rather than positively encouraging ideas to seed his imagination. Note the numerous psych ward clichés: The miscreants, the irrational yeller, the catatonic guy holding a table-tennis paddle, and the silent agoraphobe whose key to unlocking his “awakening” lies with the newcomer. However, stripping all of that away, genuine moments of discovery exist between modest Craig and inquisitive Noelle a-la Cameron Frye and Sloane Peterson, with a touch of The Breakfast Club mixed in as they evade hospital personnel on an unscheduled outing, as well as between Craig and Bobby during an unscheduled game of hoops.
Given its oddly-timed release, I’m not sure whether the film will be received positively or negatively. What I do know is that I genuinely like Craig. He’s a good, honest kid, whose closed system at school tends toward seemingly insurmountable chaos only because, prior to Monday, he hadn’t taken an opportunity to step outside and broaden his world view. His struggle isn’t really with depression so much as it is with identity. But it is important to note how one can trigger the other. It is equally critical that we don’t downplay the necessity of treatment in clinical depression. Some may infer that the film suggests that depression can be treated in a week by finding a girl who likes you, but that conclusion ignores everything else going on in the film. Toward the ending, Craig tells us five days in the ward didn’t magically solve all his problems but he’s begun the path to self-improvement. Treatment, drug therapy and a lifestyle change (the three factors necessary for successful recovery from clinical depression) are all present in the film—the third just beginning.
Not long ago, there was a rash of suicides of young adults in Japan, pressured by their academic system and work-oriented culture in which 16 hour days were not uncommon. We’ve already seen the deleterious, even fatal impact that peers can have on others toward whom society already discriminates. Teens of all persuasions, intellectual, sexual or otherwise, have enough problems navigating the mess of emotions and social interactions lacking the tact and wisdom furnished by experience. We need to remove some of that weight from their shoulders and get involved as parents, guardians, mentors, role models, friends, to encourage treatment at the earliest signs of trouble and also show them that life will move beyond high school and people (most of us) will change with time. Transient problems aren’t best served by irrevocable solutions.
Footnote: I’ve often chided today’s youth because of their apparent identity crisis. I’m beginning to understand what incubated them. My generation had a preoccupation with status acquisition through career achievement. We contributed to the polarized view that you’re either a rock star or nothing. The “Economic Pearl Harbor” this philosophy resulted in has only compounded the problems with which we’ve saddled them. We were too busy climbing our ladders to teach them to be well-rounded human beings, rather than just more employable ones. Consequently, hipsters borrowed their identity from superficial perspectives on decades past, and their techno-commerce brethren borrowed their callous sociopathy from our narcissism. We failed them, and created a generation of stressed out, manic-depressive children misguidedly trying to imitate adults who behave like children.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 91 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language. • Distributed by Focus Features
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