Portrayal of depression in the cinema


Filmmakers can hit or miss when they portray mental illness in the movies.

The film could capture the essence of mental illness so well that the audience feels the character's pain and suffering, or so badly that it misrepresents a disease and adds to harmful stigma. When done correctly, films that address mental illnesses can be informative, powerful tools of advocacy and awareness.

The following five films are among those that have succeeded in characterizing mental illness, some showing the detrimental consequences of isolation, and others simply showing that it's okay not to be okay and that those with mental illness don't have to struggle alone.

'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' (2012)

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” tells the story of an adolescent boy Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is constantly bullied by his classmates while juggling the trauma of the death of his beloved aunt and the suicide of his best friend, Michael. Charlie struggles by himself until he meets a group of outcasts, including Sam and Patrick (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller), who help him with his depression and social issues.

The movie illustrates the social pressures that depressed adolescents must endure as they navigate their illness. It shows that, in many places, mental illness is seen as a weakness and something to be ashamed of. In this movie, however, we see that many people who are thought to be completely put together actually quietly fight their own internal battles. A theme of this movie is that not everyone is as happy as they may seem and people with depression are usually not alone.

For more about other drama that book contained but the movie lacked, check out Film Comment's review.

'Black Swan' (2010)

In “Black Swan,” Nina (Natalie Portman) is a talented and well-accomplished ballet dancer in a contemporary production of Swan Lake. When the lead part is threatened to be stolen by Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina becomes obsessed with being perfect. She starts to harm herself through her eating disorder and succumbs to depression because of her inability to completely let loose while dancing.

Because Nina puts all this pressure on herself, she blames herself for not being good enough. This affects the way she dances and lives her life. She begins to have hallucinations that imply her lack of self-worth and eventually she is toppled by her obsession with perfection.

For more about the other struggles that play a part in her decline, check out Roger Ebert's review.

'Girl, Interrupted' (1999)

“Girl, Interrupted” tells a story about isolation and depression. In the 1993 film version of the best-selling memoir by Susanna Kaysen, Susanna (Winona Ryder) is diagnosed with depression after a suicide attempt. She is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and lands in a ward with other girls who have mental illnesses, including Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a sociopath who is both harmful and helpful to Susanna.

Susanna feels isolated from her parents and teachers and classmates. Overall, she is put into her own world of depression that she can’t escape. These feelings grow while she's in the psych ward, highlighting the lack of understanding of those with mental illness.

For more about how relatively sane people can get wrapped up in the consuming world of mental illness and psych wards, check out Roger Ebert's review.

'Fight Club' (1999)

In “Fight Club,” our unnamed main character (Edward Norton) is an insomniac who has found relief through going to support groups for several illnesses. He meets a man named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who is everything he always wanted to be. Eventually, they start a fight club, which turns into an anti-capitalist group that violently protests throughout the city.

The narrator suffers from several issues throughout the movie. His insomnia seeps into his work and throws him into isolation and depression. He had little social interactions before the fight club and was struggling by himself with mental illness. What’s more, his identity is a huge part of this, he begins to act unlike himself, and in a huge turn of events at the end of the play, he ends up having to fight off his multiple personality disorder in order to be happy.

For more on the controversy behind this "pro-thinking" movie, check out this Rolling Stone review.

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is accused of the statutory rape of a teenage girl so he is admitted to a psychiatric ward. There, the doctors are more abusive to the patients than actually helpful toward their mental illnesses. The clear idea of the institution is to keep the patients away from society by keeping them in their mental state. As a result, the patients delve deeper into their mental disorders.

Since the ward is run like an authoritarian regime, the committed patients cannot leave the premises so they are forced to find a way out of the ward.

Throughout the movie, it is shown that many patients have had trauma in their lives within and out of the hospital, but ironically, the depression caused by being in such an awful place contributes to the reason why they can’t leave the ward. The fear of being overtaken by the nurses coupled with their incapability due to their illnesses strips away any chance of returning to society.

For more about the wild shenanigans and escape plans, check out Roger Ebert's review.

Email Jaylene Lopez at jaylenelopez@umass.edu or follow her on Twitter @JayleneLopez_. Feature photo: (Daniel Oines/Flickr)

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