The Weinstein Company/Warner Bros/Marvel
A movie doesn’t need a big fight or a giant action set piece to be exciting or interesting. In fact, sometimes the best films—or aspects of films—come from looking inward for sources of turmoil that can feel more real and be more relatable for viewers than any gunfight or car chase. We’re talking about stories that explore mental illness, and what kind of impact varying illness can have on lives, relationships, and more. And while mental illness still holds far too significant of a stigma in modern society, that stigma is decreasing; mainstream depiction in films seen and loved by many can be a major factor in continuing to break down that wall.
Movies either centering on or touching upon mental illness aren’t a new concept, but the range of genres doing so is wider than ever before. From romantic comedies to action blockbusters, a discussion on mental illness—and mental health—can be found almost anywhere. In fact, a movie doesn’t even need to be about mental illness or mental health to be part of the ongoing surrounding conversation. That could be a good way to normalize the conversation, and some of the movies on out list below do a great job of doing so.
The list below is in no way expansive, but it does cover a lot of ground. Some movies are great, some are merely good, but all do a great job of facilitating the conversation that it’s important for all of us to be having.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Based on Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, Silver Linings Playbook follows its two main characters closely. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan and diagnosed bipolar who’s recently been released from a stint in a mental hospital, and Jennifer Lawrence (in her Oscar-winning role) plays a widow dealing with her own mental illness in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Despite those seemingly-heavy themes, the movie is actually a fantastic romantic comedy, showing the ways two people with their own sets of problems can find greatness in one another, even when they aren’t looking for it. Bonus greatness comes in the form of performances from Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver, Chris Tucker, and a really great soundtrack.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Perhaps the most famous movie ever made about mental illness is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the classic from Milos Foreman. The movie, rightly considered a classic, finds a criminal who pleaded insanity (Jack Nicholson) in a mental asylum, helping to lead his fellow patients in an uprising against the abusive nurse (Louise Fletcher) who takes advantage of them.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) directed Girl, Interrupted which follows a young woman (Winona Ryder) who finds herself institutionalized following a suicide attempt. Inside the institution (called Claymoore) she meets another young woman (Angelina Jolie), and the film explores how these characters grow throughout the course of her 18-month stay.
Girl, Interrupted is set in the late ’60s, and makes for an interested modern day watch because not only do you get to see how the perception of mental illness and health changed between the ’60s and 1999 (when the film was released), but also the differences between 1999 and now. Based on Susanna Kaysen’s book of the same name.
The King of Staten Island (2020)
The newest movie on this list, The King of Staten Island follows a recent pattern of movies directed by Judd Apatow, in which he allows his lead actor to co-write the movie in order to tell (some version of) their own story. The King of Staten Island, then, follows many of the same beats as star Pete Davidson’s life. He plays a kid from, yes, Staten Island, who’s lost his father at a young age, and has grown up his entire life with depression and a diagnosis with bipolar disorder.
The movie shows the beats of Davidson’s character’s life, and also shows how his own life intersects with those around him, including his mother (Marissa Tomei), sister (Maude Apatow), friends, and mother’s boyfriend (Bill Burr). The movie is funny in many of the ways you’d expect from Apatow and Davidson, but even more manages to tell a great story with a really big heart.
Black Swan (2010)
Once you know that Black Swan was directed by Darren Aronofsky—a master at following someone slowly losing their grip on sanity—everything else makes perfect sense. Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her role as a dancer who lands a heavily-coveted role in a ballet production, and has trouble dealing with the internal and external pressure that comes after.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Ryan Gosling might give his best performance in Lars and the Real Girl, where he plays the titular shy, introverted main character, who finally finds the “real girl” of his dreams…who just happens to be a doll he found on the internet. The movie takes place in a small town where everyone knows one another, so rather than making fun of him, the town mostly plays along, allowing Gosling’s character—and all of the years of trauma that resulted in this delusion—to run its course.
Fight Club (1999)
If Lars and the Real Girl is mostly a nice movie, well, David Fincher’s Fight Club is…uh, not. Fight Club is aggressive and in your face about what it means, with not-so-subtle points all along the way about toxic masculinity, suppressed pain and trauma, and way more. If you somehow haven’t seen Fight Club and haven’t had it spoiled, you’re in for a big treat—Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are both mesmerizing, and Fincher does as Fincher does. The movie is stunning from start to finish.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A Beautiful Mind is a fairly straightforward entry on this list, telling the true-life tale of paranoid schizophrenic mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), who takes on additional work and begins to believe that he’s involved in a massive conspiracy. Anyone who’s been watching MCU movies or WandaVision will also be pleased to find a relatively early Paul Bettany performance here as well.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t entirely revolve around mental health or mental illness, but it plays a huge role in the movie. The inciting incident of the film is a family road trip in a yellow VW bus taking young Olive (Abigail Breslin) to compete in a pageant. But just before the events of the film, Frank (Steve Carell) has just attempted suicide, and Duane (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence. The movie shows how different people handle different forms of trauma, and does so in a total package that’s both respectful and entertaining.
It’s Kind Of a Funny Story (2010)
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, based on the novel of the same name, is about a 16-year-old kid who spends time in the psychiatric hospital after contemplating suicide. The movie, which features Keir Gilchrist in the lead, along with Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, and Zach Galifianakis, is not as grim as it may sound. In fact, it’s fairly light in tone, showing that the people who need help are just that: people who need help, people who make jokes, and people who can help others, too.
The Skeleton Twins (2014)
The Skeleton Twins pairs two beloved Saturday Night Live alums—Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig—together as estranged twins brought together by tragic circumstance: the former attempted suicide, and the latter was about to do the same—until she found out about her brother. The two reunite, and the movie dives deep and carefully into the subject of depression. Of course, the movie takes on a lighter tone as it goes along and we get to know the characters and they learn to accept themselves. Plus, the two great leads do what they’re best at.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape finds a dysfunctional family where the titular character (Johnny Depp) is a young man who needs to care for his family members, including his mentally-impaired younger brother and mother, who’s morbidly obsese and confined to her home as a result of an eating disorder. The movie not only explores the lives of the latter two characters amidst their impairments, but also the stress and anxiety that it puts on Gilbert as their de facto caretaker.
Matchstick Men (2003)
Nicolas Cage does a lot of bad movies, but a lot of good movies too. Matchstick Men, where he plays a con man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is one of the good ones. The movie follows Cage’s character and his partner, played by Sam Rockwell, as the two plan to pull off a big score—only to be interrupted by the discovery of Cage’s character’s daughter from a brief past marriage. One of director Ridley Scott’s most underrated movies, and based on the novel of the same name.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Perks of Being a Wallflower was a YA sensation when it was initially released as a novel by Stephen Chobsky, and it’s proven to be just as lasting a success in film form (which Chobsky directed himself). The story follows Charlie, a high school freshman who’s a bit shy and prone to anxiety at first, but manages to find himself as he makes high school friends.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Sometimes the most destructive of behaviors are mental illnesses, and a compulsive gambling addiction would certainly qualify. Uncut Gems isn’t only Adam Sandler’s best performance of his career, but the entire movie is fantastic, as Benny and Josh Safdie manage to get the audience on the side of Sandler’s Howard Ratner, a man who risks far too much and brings his entire life to the brink as a way to appease his destructive urges to gamble on basically any and everything.
Welcome to Me (2015)
Welcome to Me is one of the strangest movies on the list, anchored by a really winning performance from Kristen Wiig. The former SNL star here plays a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who wins the lottery after stopping taking her medication, and immediately uses the money to buy and put on her own daytime talk show. The movie is just as wild as it sounds, but puts the spotlight on a mental illness that doesn’t often get much publicity. Wiig does a great job of playing the character with real traits of Borderline Personality Disorder, including mood swings and inability to maintain relationships.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Some may remember Iron Man 3 most for its unexpected plot twist, but it’s also the movie that might make Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire, genius, playboy, superhero at the MCU’s center, as human as ever. In the aftermath of the events of The Avengers (2012), Tony isn’t doing well—the movie shows him as he comes down with panic attacks, symptoms of PTSD, and constant insomnia. The movie also does a great job of showing not only how those traits and symptoms are affecting him, but how they affect those around him; his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) helps Tony in the middle of the night when dreams of past trauma return without notice.
Observe & Report (2009)
When Observe & Report was first released, it sort of slipped under the radar; despite the fact that director Jody Hill, star Seth Rogen, and the rest of the cast and crew had been working on the movie longer, another movie centered on mall security guards—Paul Blart: Mall Cop—came out earlier and was a box office smash.
Observe & Report is definitely not like Paul Blart: Mall Cop. A crude, often very dark comedy, Observe focuses in on a diagnosed bipolar mall security guard named Ronnie (Rogen) who has delusions of becoming a cop like he’s seen in movies, though his behavior in no way warrants it.
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