September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Here at Hollywood.com, we’re all about bringing realness to Hollywood and that includes normalizing mental health issues in film. While there are plenty of television shows that have dealt with these issues, today we will only be focusing on movies. Tons movies exist that involve mental illness or mental health challenges. However, how many can you think of that actually normalize living with a mental disorder?
We swept our own personal film libraries and crowdsourced some friends to come up with a list of our favorite films that destigmatize mental health challenges and bring human complexity to disorders that are rarely accurately portrayed in film. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
In this critically acclaimed romantic dramedy from filmmaker David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper’s character Pat is fresh out of an inpatient treatment facility and living with his parents. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany is grieving the accidental death of her late husband. As the 2 cope with their own personal situations, Tiffany persuades Pat to join her in a ballroom dancing competition by promising to help him rekindle his relationship with his estranged wife. Spoiler alert: These 2 fall in love. Although, unlike most of the films we’ve seen that involve mental illness, Pat and Tiffany’s love story does not end in abject ruin or in “happily ever after, we’re cured by love!” Instead, the 2 continue their journeys of healing and recovery, this time, with a partner by their side instead of walking that difficult road alone.
Silver Linings Playbook sheds a really welcomed light on themes of psychiatric recovery, nervous breakdowns, and the multitude of ways that humans cope with loss. It is the only film we’ve seen that aims to accurately depict returning to “real life” after hospitalization, and how challenging that can be for people who want to get better.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The tragi-comedy indie flick, Little Miss Sunshine, stunned audiences (in the best and most unexpected of ways) upon its release in the summer of 2006. In the film, Steve Carell’s character, an unemployed scholar of Faust, goes to stay with his sister and her family after a suicide attempt. His family is played by Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin. Together, they take an 800-mile road trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive (Abigail’s character) can perform in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant for young girls.
Little Miss Sunshine was the first film that we can remember that includes suicidal recovery, addiction, heartbreak, and broken dreams without making them the sole focus of the plot. Instead, these very real and painful struggles are juxtaposed with an innocent, endearing primary plot: a little girl just wanting to be seen as a pretty beauty queen. Little Miss Sunshine demonstrates the complexity of family dynamics and how, sometimes, the greatest healing can come from supporting a loved ones’ aspirations. This was also the first film we can recall that involves such real-world problems yet still makes viewers laugh out loud at the absurdities that unfold, separate from the battles that multiple characters are fighting internally.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, please do so immediately! It is a modern-day cerebral classic and, like all works of art that create beauty from despair, it is a piece of cinema that deserves every accolade it has rightly received since its release in 2004.
This sci-fi psychological romance was directed by Michel Gondry (Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) and co-written by Michel and Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York.) It stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in the lead roles of Joel and Clementine. An ensemble cast includes Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson.
After his romantic relationship ends with Clementine, a heartbroken Joel learns that his former lover decided to have all of her memories of him wiped by a medical firm. In turn, Joel also decides to have his memories of Clementine erased. As they are erased, Joel revisits each memory he has of Clementine, beginning with their last fight and moving backward in time to when they first met. As his memories continue to be expunged from his brain (even the happy ones), Joel realizes that he’s made a mistake.
While the mental health issues in this iconic indie film are ever-present, they are less explicit than films like Silver Linings Playbook or Little Miss Sunshine. While Clementine deals with alcoholism and what can be perceived as Borderline Personality Disorder, Joel faces heartbreak-induced depression. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that ultimately exemplifies the pain of being trapped inside one’s own mind, and how it is easier to fight internal battles side-by-side with another person, rather than alone.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: Respect (2021)
We love a quality biopic, especially ones that reveal the lesser-known backstories of our favorite modern cultural icons. In Respect, released last month, viewers are privy to the backstory of legendary Motown songstress Aretha Franklin. Prior to her passing in 2018, Aretha personally selected actress/singer Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) to portray her in the film.
Like The United States vs. Billie Holliday (2020), Respect demystifies the backstory of one of the most renowned musical performers of the 20th century and reveals to audiences the turbulence that predicated Aretha Franklin’s ultimate success and stardom.
In the film, when Aretha is 6 years old, her mother, upon learning that her husband has impregnated a teenage member of his congregation, deserts the family. This leaves Aretha and her siblings to be raised by their father, the Pastor C.L. Franklin (played by Forest Whitaker).
Following the sudden death of her mother (played by Audra McDonald) when Aretha’s 10, her grief causes her to become selectively mute. Only once she’s forced to sing at her father’s church, weeks later, does she begin to speak again. Respect vividly illustrates the broken home in which Aretha’s raised, portraying her father as an abusive and womanizing authority figure despite his prominent role in the church and the American Civil Rights Movement. At just 12 years old, Aretha gives birth to her first of 4 children. Her second son comes when she’s 14.
In addition to the grief and mistreatment of her formative years, Aretha’s also subjected to prolonged domestic abuse and mistreatment by her husband and producer, Ted White (played in the film by Marlon Wayans). Ted White’s public abuse against Aretha was well-known and even reported by Time Magazine in 1968. During this time, the Motown legend struggles extensively with alcoholism. When the soul singer finally divorces Ted in 1969, she’s already a star, although the fissures in her emotional foundation causes her to be hospitalized for depression and “mental exhaustion” multiple times in the next decade.
While Aretha Franklin is lauded for her extensive contributions to American pop culture and Motown music, the performer’s mental health often went overlooked at the expense of record sales, sold-out national tours, and manipulation by producers and record executives. Respect, directed by Liesl Tommy in her feature film directorial debut, has received extensive praise and accolades for the authenticity of its depiction of Aretha’s life, including her painful struggles with mental health, domestic abuse, and addiction that were frequently glossed over during the star’s heyday.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Like Jim Carrey’s dramatic performance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Skeleton Twins stars 2 renowned comedic actors in notably dramatic roles. SNL alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play estranged twins who, after not seeing each other for 10 years, reunite when both attempt suicide. Milo, Bill Hader’s character, works as a waiter in Los Angeles after a failed acting career. Maggie, Kristen Wiig’s character, still lives in their hometown in suburban New York and is in an unhappy marriage and engaging in an affair with her scuba instructor. After Milo slits his wrists and is hospitalized, Maggie receives a call from the hospital just as she’s about to overdose on prescription pills. Maggie travels to Los Angeles, reunites with her twin brother, and brings him back to their hometown to recover in her home.
Yes, the premise of this film sounds very heavy. But, like all great comedy-dramas, the dialogue brings a levity to the film, and the astute performances of Bill, Kristen, and the film’s supporting cast (Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason), bring a nuanced complexity, causing viewers to laugh despite the gravity of the character’s situations. Like Little Miss Sunshine and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Skeleton Twins is a low-budget indie flick (with a reported $1 million budget) that superseded box office expectations and received critical acclaim.
Not only is this comedy-drama built on a foundation of painful psychiatric subject matter, it displays the duality of life: that even in the hardest of times, there is humor, there is levity, there is hope. The dynamics between Kristen and Bill’s characters are complex and flawed, but at the center of it, a fiercely loving bond exists that tethers the twins as they heal themselves and bear witness to one another’s recoveries.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A Beautiful Mind rightfully deserves inclusion in this list because of how it portrays schizophrenia through such a humanist lens. Starring Russell Crowe as a renowned mathematician and scholar John Nash, the film begins when John is a graduate student at Princeton University. Despite his mathematical brilliance, John Nash begins to experience symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and cognitive delusions, including seeing companions and malevolent individuals who are not there. After beginning a cryptography assignment for the Department of Defense (in which he’s tasked with analyzing magazines and newspapers for codes to intercept a Soviet plot against America during the Cold War), John starts to believe he’s being surveilled and targeted by Soviet agents.
John’s wife, masterfully portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, endures his institutionalization in a psychiatric facility while supporting him through insulin shock therapy and an aggressive antipsychotic prescription regime. The side effects of these medications frustrate John, who clandestinely stops taking the medication, only for his paranoid psychoses to return. He continues his work at Princeton for decades while staving off his hallucinations. When John Nash wins the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his development of Game Theory, he sees his wife and son in the audience, along with the figures who have haunted him since his youth. He knows they are not real, but the paranoid delusions still remain.
Rather than portraying John Nash as stark raving mad or hyperbolically unhinged, A Beautiful Mind respectfully depicts its schizophrenic protagonist in an authentic way as a gifted and brilliant person, who is haunted by psychosis that even he comes to realize are not real. The film is told from John’s perspective so viewers come to believe that all of the characters he’s interacting with are as real as they seem. The “unreliable narrator” device that is used throughout the film allows viewers into John’s mind and demonstrates the symptoms of schizophrenia from a personal point of view, rather than one that is external and voyeuristic.
In addition, Jennifer Connelly’s character provides a starkly honest portrayal of how the loved ones of those with mental disorders are also faced with challenging struggles of how to support them when their illnesses betray their personalities.
Directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code), and written by Akiva Goldsman (I, Robot, I Am Legend, The Dark Tower), A Beautiful Mind was lauded by critics and audiences alike. “[Ron] Howard pulls off an extraordinary trick in A Beautiful Mind by seducing the audience into [John] Nash’s paranoid world,” wrote The Guardian in March 2002. “We may not leave the cinema with A-level competence in game theory, but we do get a glimpse into what it feels like to be mad – and not know it.”
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)
Based on the book by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is a coming-of-age drama about a high-school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who begins high school after being released from an inpatient psychiatric treatment facility.
While Charlie has been diagnosed with clinical depression since childhood, the character is also struggling with PTSD because his best friend committed suicide the year before. Friendless and emotionally delicate, he finds an ally in his English teacher, played by Paul Rudd. Eventually, Charlie befriends charismatic step-siblings Samantha and Patrick (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller), 2 seniors who act as social mentors for the wallflower, welcoming him into their social circle. But as his close friends prepare to depart for college, Charlie is forced to combat his own social isolation and address repressed memories of sexual abuse that he endured as a child.
The film, which was adapted for the screen and directed by the novel’s author Stephen Chbosky (Rent, Beauty and the Beast, Dear Evan Hansen), also addresses themes of closeted homosexuality, adolescent drug use, non-consensual sex, and homophobia. Upon its release in 2012, it became a cult classic for teen audiences and a relatable piece of cinema to viewers of all ages. The film is a truthful depiction of many rarely-seen aspects of the adolescent experience and, like other movies on this list, it focuses on the characters first, and their mental health challenges second, proving that individuals are not defined by their disorders, but rather by how they triumph over their traumas and respective personal demons.
Good Movies To Watch To Normalize Mental Health: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The last film we’re including on this list is also the oldest and has come to be viewed as a renowned classic. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the first mainstream movies to compassionately portray mental health issues as afflictions, rather than personality-defining traits of its characters.
Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stars Jack Nicholson in one of his most renowned roles as Randle McMurphy. The film begins when McMurphy is transferred from prison to a psychiatric facility where he meets an eclectic group of individuals who are each severely incapacitated by their chronic mental conditions.
The oppressive treatment these patients receive from the hospital’s staff, led by the malevolent and tyrannical Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher), indicates to McMurphy (who is not mentally incapacitated, but has feigned mental illness to avoid hard labor), that his fellow patients need freedom and self-confidence rather than suffocating control. He repeatedly tries to escape the confines of the hospital and even successfully steals a school bus, taking a group of patients to go fishing. For his recurring misdeeds, McMurphy is punished with electro-shock therapy, although this does not deter his quest for freedom.
Eventually, McMurphy’s subordination causes him to be lobotomized by the hospital’s staff, rendering him severely brain-damaged. His fellow patients, already catalyzed by McMurphy’s charismatic non-conformity, continue to rebel against the authoritarian staff, even after the protagonist has been permanently damaged.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has since become one of the most iconic films of the 20th century and was added to the National Film Registry in the US Library of Congress in 1993. Not only did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest greatly destigmatize mental disorders (a taboo subject in 1970s popular culture), it was also one of the first films to demonstrate the institutional mistreatment of patients that occurred in inpatient psychiatric facilities during the mid-20th century, galvanizing a wave of psychiatric reform across the United States, upon its release.
While this list encompasses a number of our favorite films that pertain to mental health challenges, it certainly does not include every film that normalizes mental health. Here are a few more that deserve inclusion in this canon: It’s Kind of A Funny Story (2010), Good Will Hunting (1997), Blue Jasmine (2013), The Soloist (2009), Punch Drunk Love (2002), Prozac Nation (2001), The Hours (2002), Adaptation (2002), and Ordinary People (1980).
By the way…
If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with mental health challenges, you do not have to suffer in silence. Here are a few resources for you. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is also open 24/7 at 1 (800) 273-8255. “People call to talk about lots of things: substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and loneliness, to name a few.” You can even CHAT with them without having to pick up the phone.
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