A common goal in filmmaking is to figure out how to get inside the head and under the skin of the audience, and what better way to do that but to shed light on actual psychological disorders that affect millions around the world? The only issue with that otherwise well-meaning effort toward representation is that finding movies about mental illness that offer a truly authentic portrayal of proven symptoms and behaviors are a bit more of a rarity than they should be, with mental health awareness a more important issue than ever these day. To do our part to ensure mental health awareness is more properly observed, we have compiled a healthy number of films that represent these issues with the honesty they deserve, starting with one of the most heartbreaking, uplifting, and funny films about the topic.
Silver Linings Playbook (Netflix)
Following his release from a mental hospital, a former teacher (Bradley Cooper in his first Academy Award-nominated role) hopes to mend his broken marriage, until his new friendship with a widowed recovering sex addict (Jennifer Lawrence in her first Academy Award-winning role) soon shows signs of developing into something more.
How it is honest about mental illness: Despite claiming to always look for the bright side, Pat’s (Cooper) bipolar disorder causes him to act out in fits of rage, often fueled by his unrequited love for his adulterous ex-wife that also blinds him to his feelings for Tiffany (Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell’s 2012 adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel that might be the writer and director’s finest work.
Good Will Hunting (Starz)
A young custodian (Matt Damon, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script with co-star Ben Affleck) is forced by an uptight MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgård) who's in awe of his mathematical brilliance to seek guidance from a widowed therapist (Robin Williams in his Oscar-winning role), who ends up helping him in ways he never expected or knew he wanted.
How it is honest about mental illness: It is not until near the end of Good Will Hunting - a brilliant, inspiring, heartily crafted 1997 drama from director Gus Van Sant - when we discover that (like Williams’ role, Sean) Damon’s title character is a victim of child abuse, which has since stunted him from forming meaningful relationships with his friends and his new girlfriend (Minnie Driver), and applying his intellectual gifts toward a better future.
Charlie Bartlett (Amazon Rental)
A precocious troublemaker (the late Anton Yelchin) attends public school for the first time where he hopes to finally make friends, and ends up becoming the personal therapist and pharmacist to other classmates who need help the most - much to the chagrin of his principal (Robert Downey Jr.) who also happens to be the father of his new girlfriend (fellow Marvel movies star Kat Dennings).
How it is honest about mental illness: The underrated coming-of-age dramedy Charlie Bartlett came out in 2007, a time when themes of depression, obsessive behavior, sex addiction, and other mental health issues were rarely told from the point of view of high school students, and in such a boldly authentic and encouraging way.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Showtime)
An introverted high school freshman (Logan Lerman) becomes friends with an attractive senior (Emma Watson) and her gay stepbrother (Ezra Miller), who help him find a new sense of belonging when he learns that they also have their own damaging issues to deal with.
How it is honest about mental illness: When stories about mental health from a youthful perspective started becoming more commonplace in the mainstream, The Perks of Being a Wallflower - writer and director Stephen Chbosky’s 2012 adaptation of his own novel - became one of the more celebrated of the bunch for a deeply moving exploration of the traumatic effects of abuse, burdened romances, and the loss of loved ones.
To The Bone (Netflix)
A young woman (Lily Collins) in denial of her anorexia, despite her dysfunctional family’s vocal concerns, finds treatment from a support group run by a doctor (Keanu Reeves) whose unconventional methods encourage her to face her problem head-on and pave her own path to get healthy.
How it is honest about mental illness: Written and directed by a woman who suffered from an eating disorder when she was younger (Marti Noxon) and starring an actress in the lead role who also suffered from an eating disorder when she was younger (Lily Collins), the 2017 Netflix original drama To the Bone offers a pretty authentic portrayal of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder.
Girl, Interrupted (Starz)
A young woman (Winona Ryder) is forced by her parents to live at a mental hospital where she meets a girl (Angelina Jolie in her Oscar-winning role) whose own destructive tendencies worsen her struggle to understand and cope with her issues.
How it is honest about mental illness: In the late 1960s, Susanna Kaysen downed a bottle of aspirin with vodka, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, admitted to an 18-month stay in a metal institution, and turned into a memoir that inspired 1999’s Girl, Interrupted - an early, acclaimed hit for Indiana Jones 5 director James Mangold that also tackles themes of sociopathy, self-harm, and suicide in revealing ways.
A Beautiful Mind (Starz)
A brilliant, widely renowned, but socially challenged mathematician (Academy Award winner Russell Crowe) finds his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Connelly, in her Oscar-winning role) and his career threatened by an upsetting discovery about his own mental health that causes him to question everything he knows about his life.
How it is honest about mental illness: Another inspiring film about mental health based on a true story is director Ron Howard’s 2001 Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, which, admittedly, does fabricate some aspects of the life of John Nash, but still succeeds for how well it represents the horrifying delusions and even harsher realities faced by paranoid schizophrenics.
The Aviator (HBO Max)
Illustrious billionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio in his second Academy Award-nominated role) battles rival aircraft company Pan Am, accusations of war profiteering, and severe, undefined mental health issues during the late 1920s through the mid-1940s.
How it is honest about mental illness: Director Martin Scorsese’s compelling 2004 biopic The Aviator also does take a few creative liberties in how it tells the life of Howard Hughes, but in a way that is especially effective in how it portrays the groundbreaking industrialist turned infamous recluse’s debilitating struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder during a time when the illness had not yet been properly documented.
Still Alice (Starz)
A successful professor of linguistics (Julianne Moore in her first Academy Award-winning role) struggles to keep her family close and keep her mind together after she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at only 50 years old.
How it is honest about mental illness: Based on the novel by renowned neuroscientist Lisa Genova, Still Alice gives audiences a vivid and sometimes harrowing first-hand account of the memory loss and eventual loss of one’s sense of self that makes Alzheimer’s disease, as Moore’s title character says, “hell.”
Uncut Gems (Netflix)
A series of increasingly selfish and misguided decisions prevent a New York City jewelry store owner (Adam Sandler, in a role that should have earned him an Academy Award nomination) from achieving the life-changing payout he assumes he will earn after coming into possession a rare and extremely valuable opal.
How it is honest about mental illness: No matter how large his debt increases, how dire the stakes are raised, and how unlikely the odds seem to be in his favor, Howard Rattner’s unwavering gambling addiction continues to win over his inhibition to prevent himself from losing it all in Uncut Gems - a masterful exercise in pushing character, plot, and audiences to stress-inducing limits, from writing and directing duo Josh and Benny Safdie.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (HBO Max)
A convict (Jack Nicholson in his first Oscar-winning role) becomes a voice to victims of unfair abuse at the hands of the sadistic psychiatric nurse, Mildred Ratched (Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher), after his mental instability plea to avoid jail time lands him in a mental hospital.
How it is honest about mental illness: Perhaps the most iconic, honest, and quite terrifying depiction of mental institutions is director Milos Forman’s masterful 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which tries to portray patients in a most human way, by shedding light on the inhumane treatment they have been known to be subjected to throughout history.
While the films above are heralded for offering honest representations of mental health, it is still important to educate yourself even further on the topics yourself. Also, if you or a loved one is suffering from mental illness, please do not hesitate to seek help.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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