Content Warning: This article discusses mental health issues and disorders that some readers may find triggering.
For years, discussions about mental health in movies have been iffy, at best, often negating the truth behind the experiences around mental health that people deal with on a daily basis. Mental health has been a growing concern, a topic (finally) more in the public eye, and for those who grew up in the digital age, a harsh reality.
There is no shortage of big-screen attempts at depicting mental illness. Many have swung and missed, while others did their due diligence to accurately and sensitively display the issues real people are faced with. Here are a few films, streamable on Netflix, that viewers can watch to see how the entertainment industry has tackled the subject, whether poorly or well done.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Silver Linings Playbook highlights the story of a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder as he seeks treatment and recovers from an incident stemming from a manic episode. His inability to recognize that what he did was wrong further supports the accuracy of his diagnosis and the ways in which Bradly Cooper portrays the character. He meets a woman with whom he ends up romantically involved, who is dealing with depression.
The two create great on-screen chemistry and help drive the plot, while also realistically depicting the smaller and more mundane ways in which mental health can affect a person’s life. The film was widely praised by critics, earning itself eight Academy Awards nominations. Jennifer Lawrence brought home the Oscar for Best Actress in one of her most iconic roles.
As Good As It Gets (1997)
Jack Nicholson stars in this comedy-drama about a man with diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who must learn to love and accept his gay neighbor despite his homophobia, all while working through the symptoms of his disorder that affects his day-to-day. As Good As It Gets accurately depicts the functional interference and distress associated with the disorder.
Viewers see how Melvin engages in ritualistic behaviors like turning the nob a certain number of times and how he avoids stepping on cracks due to superstitions. It is important to understand that not all of his behaviors are associated with his OCD, some are just part of his personality. The film was praised for its accurate depiction of the disorder, and the film received Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress.
All The Bright Places (2020)
All the Bright Places is a book-to-movie adaptation that was released on Netflix in 2020. Elle Fanning stars in the film alongside Justice Smith as Theodore Finch, a character living with an unnamed mental illness, with many symptoms similar to bipolar disorder. He, as well as Fanning’s character, also has developing signs of PTSD and depression that correspond with childhood abuse and trauma.
Although the film doesn’t highlight the mental illness specifically, it manages to do a wonderful job showing how isolating and difficult it can be living with any type of mental burden. The film explores how important it is to talk openly about mental illness, whether it is a result of teenage adolescence, grief, or abuse.
To The Bone (2017)
To The Bone was released as a Netflix original in 2017 and stars Lily Collins as a young woman with anorexia. The film first appeared at Sundance and although it received positive critical reviews at first, after its Netflix release, the film opened up more conversation and its eating disorder subject matter became controversial. If nothing else, it illustrates how difficult it is for filmmakers to responsibly portray eating disorder subject matter on the big screen.
The film does offer an insightful look into the issues that are associated with a person living with anorexia and what the healing process might look like. It tries its best not to glorify the disorder, however, it is nearly impossible to avoid the negative backlash that comes with showing such content on screen. Many of the scenes were triggering to those who were recovering from anorexia, which is completely valid.
Strange Voices (1987)
Strange Voices was a made-for-television film about a young woman living with schizophrenia. The film was one of the highest-rated TV movies in 1987 when it was released. However, it received mixed reviews, and at a time when mental health discussions were not where they should have been, The New York Times called it “too much, too late.”
The film touches on the difficulties many were facing in the ’80s at receiving health care for mental illness, and what happened when they didn’t get proper treatment. It also accurately depicts the learning process of the family of a person living with a disorder like schizophrenia. From denial to acceptance, viewers watch as the young woman and her family navigate her illness.
The Fundamentals Of Caring (2016)
Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez star in this comedy-drama film about a recent divorcee suffering from depression, and his unlikely friendship with a disabled teenager he is the caregiver for. Although The Fundamentals of Caring is primarily about this relationship and the difficulties Trevor faces as a man who utilizes a wheelchair, the film does a wonderful job highlighting the mental health difficulties that each of the characters faces, as well.
Rudd’s character is dealing with severe depression after the loss of his daughter and subsequent divorce, and Trevor battles anxiety associated with his disability. The film, and the book it was based on, are heartwarming and filled with plenty of light and dark humor.
Horse Girl (2020)
Another Sundance Film Festival attendee, this Netflix original was released to streaming in 2020 and follows the story of Sarah as she struggles to find the support she needs while experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Horse Girl certainly takes a look at mental illness in a unique way, and the film requires more than one viewing to fully understand.
Its complexities parallel the complexities of mental illness, and the storyline itself parallels the real-life battles that actress Alison Brie, who plays Sarah in the film, has with depression and schizophrenia. Sarah has difficulty understanding social cues and her real symptoms of mental illness are brushed off as quirkiness by those closest to her. This is a reality for many who live with mental illness, and it is nice to see highlighted in mainstream media.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (2020)
Too often mental illness is used as the subject matter for horror and thriller genre films. However, every once in a while, it can be a great way of highlighting the scarier aspects of a mental illness. I’m Thinking of Ending Things creates a jarring and psychologically difficult viewing experience for the untrained eye. It takes a deeper look to fully understand the psychosis, anxiety, and even schizophrenia the main character, Jake, battles with throughout his life and the timeline of the film.
The writer and director, Charlie Kaufman, uses abstract and metaphoric storytelling to dive into the mind of the mentally ill main character in this Netflix hidden gem. The film ends in a riddle, and viewers still question whether it is about childhood trauma, suicidal contemplation, or schizophrenia, but the film does a great job at showing how confusing any of those illnesses can be for someone.
The Edge Of Seventeen (2016)
The Edge of Seventeen is a wonderful depiction of teenage angst and does a great job of normalizing mental health issues in high-school-age kids. Rather than glamorizing the subject of depression, it manages to touch on Nadine’s experience with it while not putting it front and center of the narrative.
Nadine’s experience with depression and anxiety stemming from her self-esteem issues and the loss of her father add depth to the story. Hailee Steinfeld leads this coming-of-age drama film with her critically acclaimed performance and the film received many positive reviews and did well at the box office.
Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
This Netflix-produced film received mixed reviews for its portrayal of mental illness and the portrayal of a woman addicted to drugs who is disconnected from her family. Despite the negative critical reception for Hillbilly Elegyaudiences loved the film and the performances were highly praised, with Glen Close receiving nominations at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
It isn’t clear what Bev’s, played by Amy Adams, mental illness is exactly, and it’s certainly gone undiagnosed, but the film highlights the issues a family faces when one of its members is going through this experience, especially when it manifests in drug addiction. The characterization is a little bit over-the-top and because of this, the film feels inauthentic, but on its basis, it highlights the ways in which untreated mental illness can create tumultuous relationships.
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