If it’s not our personal experiences that we learn from, it’s often what we see on a screen that provides us with new perspectives. Films pertaining to mental health often capture just the surface of what mental health encompasses: It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Girl, Interrupted, Silver Linings Playbook – these are a few titles that focus on the emotional turmoil society often associated mental health challenges with. There’s (mostly) nothing wrong with these movies. However, mental health is complex, and there’s a lot to delve into.
For this year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day, I wanted to shed light on what we can learn from entertainment by recommending some of my favourite movies that feature characters and stories related to mental health and mental illness. I think these movies do a superb job of demonstrating how experiences of mental health and well-being come in many forms.
In my ranking, the films closest to and including first place are the films I consider overlooked or underrated and especially worthy of being highlighted here.
10. Black Swan (2011)
This psychological thriller shows the power that obsession can have in workplace culture. Nina is in constant competition with herself to be “perfect” as the Black Swan and only when she achieves that will she be “good enough.” Her life is devoted completely to her work as a ballerina and it crumbles when she struggles to meet expectations and faces fear of being replaced. Nina is a manifestation of how far career-obsessed people would go to secure their success even if it means becoming someone they never imagined themselves to be. Through its thriller narrative, we see how Nina’s psychological health is overtaken by her work.
Disclaimer: Mild sexual content and violence
9. Good Will Hunting (1997)
A timeless classic that revolves around a custodian who explores his potential under a mathematics professor and a therapist. The film does an excellent job of tackling mental health without overly emphasizing on depression as is sometimes the norm with these types of films. The audience watches how Matt Damon’s character is shaped by his troubled childhood and the ways his unresolved anxiety as related to abandonment impacts his relationships. I love this film for showing how even with insecurities and unhealthy defense mechanisms one is still capable of overcoming them to have a more fulfilling life.
8. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This is one film portraying mental illness that really gets it right. I have a relative who lives with bipolar disorder and the portrayal of the condition in this film was familiar and resonated with me. In this film, the audience follows Pat as he seeks to improve his wellbeing and attempts to salvage his marriage and live happily. Mental illness does not define Pat’s character, rather the audience comes to appreciate how his condition affects his life through the good and the bad. What I appreciate most is that while Pat lives with mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook still presents the pain and challenges other characters without mental illness experience as valid.
Disclaimer: Nudity, mild depiction of violence
7. Two Lovers (2008)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Leonard is caught between his feelings for two women. One of the women, Michelle, has challenges with substance use. She also happens to be seeing a married man. Joaquin Pheonix’s character is enamored by her and will do everything he can to win her over. His other love interest, Sandra, is level-headed, family-oriented and gives Leonard unconditional love. Two Lovers shows the complexities of relationships. While the audience may not sympathize with Leonard’s infidelity, we sympathize with why he finds himself caught in-between. The film explores how relationships effect our mental health and that finding true security in our relationships is rooted in ourselves above all else.
Disclaimer: Depiction of suicide, mild sexual scenes
6. Stand By Me (1986)
Set in the 1960’s, this coming-of-age movie focuses on a group of boys who go on a search for a dead body in hopes to retrieve the promised award and a new reputation. Underneath the witty dialogue and spontaneous adventures are outcast children who share common experiences like neglect and abuse. During their journey, the emotional issues they try to escape confront them at full force. We come to understand why each kid is the way they are and we see how their home life impacts their well-being and relates to how they measure their self-worth.
5. Scent of a Woman (1992)
In this powerful 90’s film, Al Pacino’s character, blind, and retired from military service, confronts a death wish as a prep-school student looks after him. Colonel Frank is difficult, sometimes unpleasant, and many believe that his misery is deserved because of his attitude. Scent of a Woman explores the idea that “miserable people” deserve happiness and their alienation belies their ability to be kind to others. Everyone tells Charlie, the student, that he is difficult and uncompromising to everyone yet, he still treats him with respect and takes the time to understand him. Colonel Frank begins to re-discover his worth and opens himself to people.
4. Wind River (2017)
Immediately, Wind River does an excellent job of bringing awareness to the injustices Indigenous people can face in the United States, specifically drawing attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the untold amount of sexual assault and rape that goes undocumented. The film centers on a crime scene involving the death of a teenager whose body is found in the snow on a reserve. The film is bleak but thought-provoking in addressing parenting styles, grief, and clashes of culture all while exploring the government’s neglect of Indigenous communities.
Disclaimer: Graphic depiction of rape and violence occur in this film
3. Shame (2011)
Shame is arguably one of the best films to depict life with a sex addiction without glamourizing the addiction itself. Michael Fassbender’s character gradually deteriorates as he sinks deeper into his addiction. His sexual encounters become unpleasant experiences that reveal his pain and dependence. Sex addiction is a topic that people might be prone to avoid but is a conversation that needs to be taken seriously. In the United States alone, it affects between 12-30 million people. Shame chronicles sex addiction as though it’s not aware that it is happening. The audiences witnesses the intensity of the addiction and comes to appreciate how anyone can struggle with addiction perhaps even without realizing it.
Disclaimer: Nudity, and graphic sexual scenes
2. Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)
Brittany is a (nearly) 30-year-old-woman who receives a wake-up call after attempting to obtain Adderall from her doctor only to be told that her health is in decline. She tries running for the first time and eventually gains enough confidence to prepare for the New York City Marathon. Through a journey that involves healthy eating, exercise, and increased social support, Brittany begins to improve her wellbeing. Brittany learns that finding fulfillment truly lives within her. This film also deals with toxic friendships, responsibility and accountability, and addressing one’s insecurities. The film accomplishes this without getting too preachy as the archetypal “inspirational” movies tend to do.
1. Set Me Free (2014)
If you’ve seen Parasite (2019), you’ll be familiar with Choi Woo-shik who played the son in that Oscar-winning film. Set Me Free was the film that first got him recognized (and rightfully so). Based on a true story, the film is about student Yeong-jae, who is placed into a group home for youths by his parents. Reaching the age limit permitted, he goes to desperate lengths to prolong his stay. It is an incredibly emotional narrative that deals with someone who’s been emotionally abandoned and appears de-sensitized to his pattern of “bad” choices made during his attempt to survive on his own. Set Me Free is an important film that shows how youth mental health can be neglected even in an institution that functions to serve youth.
Disclaimer: depiction of self-harm