There's an endless supply of films that gleefully misrepresent and exploit the issues of mental health. Some of them are quite good like Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (2010). Then there are films that set out to be illuminating but are so wildly over-the-top that they can easily be categorized as entertaining curiosities like "The Snake Pit" (1948) and "Shock Corridor" (1963).
Other films are equally well intended without the melodrama and yet haven't escaped the sensationalizing of their character's illness, like the Oscar winners "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), "Rain Man" (1988) and the science-fiction drama, "Charly" (1968) none which are on my list, but are bound to me on someone else's. Also absent from the list are films like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Dominick and Eugene" (1988), "The Madness of King George" (1994), "The Three Faces of Eve" (1957), "Shine" (1996) and "Of Mice and Men" (both (1939) and (1992) versions), all note worthy explorations into the subject of mental health but are so prominent in popular culture that they stand apart.
Movies like "Harvey" (1950), "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) and "What About Bob?" (1991) might be public favourites but depends too much on looking at the illness as charming, loveable and cute - a great cinematic affectation but hardly enlightening.
The list is composed of films that have in one way or another explored mental health in a manner that is unique, revealing, and effective - and films you may not have considered.
"David and Lisa" (1962) directed by Frank Perry (uncle of pop star Katy Perry). A story of a young man institutionalized for his belief that human touch will kill him. He meets Lisa, a schizophrenic (one of the most misunderstood and over-used illnesses in film) who, under the guidance of a doctor, are encouraged to open up to each other. "David and Lisa" is a touching drama of youth suffering from emotional and mental illness who find in each other a valued community and friendship. Director Perry went on to make "Mommie Dearest" (1981) and the upcoming Saturday Night at the Movies feature, "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970) suggesting that he has long held a keen interest in mental health issues.
"A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) feels like a documentary as does many of the late John Cassavete's films. As a result the movie has a voyeuristic tone that almost leads us to believe we are sharing the struggles between a loving husband (Peter Falk) and his troubled wife (Gena Rowlands). Rowland and Falk turn in beautiful performances of a family dealing with mental illness in a caring, loving and ultimately positive fashion. Unbelievably good.
"Nashville" (1975) is not a film about mental illness but it does have one of the most heart wrenching and dramatic visuals of a public breakdown ever filmed. Country singer/actor Ronee Blakely plays Barbara Jean a highly successful country music singer who suffers a nervous breakdown during a concert. The scene is handled carefully by both Blakely and director Robert Altman progressing through an uncomfortable dialogue of false-starts and rambling incoherent confessions. The way the fans turn on her is an excruciating reminder of the lack of public empathy to symptoms of mental illness. Barbara Jean is said to be loosely based on real-life country singer, Loretta Lynn.
The Butcher Boy" (1997) by director Neil Jordan is a fantastical film about growing up in a family with a history of mental illness. The events in Jordan's film are extreme and are likely not to be fitting to all tastes. Some might find the violence and dark humour too much to take and even view it as a hindrance to our understanding of mental illness instead of a sympathetic eye-opener. But Jordan's direction keeps the movie from falling into exploitation. Perhaps it's the relentless hope that treatment is possible despite how deep the illness grows.
"Sweetie"(1989) and An Angel At My Table" (1990). Director Jane Campion made a remarkable film debut with "Sweetie" and followed it up with the equally remarkable "An Angel At My Table". The first deals with two sisters, one with a serious mental illness and the other whose life is constantly challenged by her sisters' debilitations. With "An Angel At My Table" a disturbed young woman is institutionalized but later becomes an award winning author. Both films are clear, astute looks into how mental illness affects the family as well as offering the potential for triumph over adversity. Worthy of several viewings.
"Away From Her" (2006) is director's Sarah Polley's film based on an Alice Munro short story. Polley expertly navigates the mental decline of an intelligent, outgoing and dynamic personality in a woman (Julie Christie) suffering from the outset of Alzheimer's disease. Much of the film focuses on her husband's (Gordon Pinsent) inability to cope with losing her despite his past indiscretions within the marriage. The sense of loss, of aging and of memories remembered and forgotten is perfectly captured by the two leads and further enhanced by a director whose sensitivity and awareness works well beyond her years.
"Sling Blade" (1996) Many have forgotten Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" maybe because Billy Bob who wrote, directed and stars is doing just about all he can to make us forget. But let's not. His film wonderfully portrays the depth of soul, compassion, contribution and sacrifice a of a developmentally arrested man who comes into town and befriends a young boy. From the first scene Thorton shows us that his character's limitations are in speech and emotional expression but his ability to understand and process thought is still active. A haunting film where the main character is not set-up as a saint or a victim, but as a man whose afflictions are just more obvious than the afflictions suffered by the rest of us.
"Keane" (2004) One of the easiest conversations via interviews I've had was with director Lodge Kerrigan and for the one simple reason that his film made me want to talk about it with anyone and everyone. That the person I do get to talk to is the director just happens to be a perk of the business. This ambiguous tale of a young man in his 30s desperately trying to deal with his schizophrenia while scouring a New York terminal for his lost daughter remains one of the most dynamic movie experiences I've ever had. Kerrigan never lets us be certain as to whether that man's search for a missing daughter is real or a figment of his illness. He carries with him a clipping of a little girl along with the story of her dissapearance but his ranting and panicky body language puts him off of the people he approaches. Things get complicated when he meets a little girl of about the same age as the child in the clipping. Kerrigan brilliantly landscapes a mental map of suffering through illness and assumed loss. An unforgettable and devastating film.
"Take Shelter" (2011) Cinema lovers were quite anxious anticipating the follow up film of Jeff Nichols whose previous movie Shotgun Stories (2007) gained quick and wide respect. "Take Shelter" does not disappoint. Michael Shannon plays husband/father haunted by terrifying visions of the apocalypse. But are these visions prophetic or merely the makings of a delusional mind - a mind that has suffered delusions in the past? As the film progresses so does his paranoia effecting family, friends and career. Relentless and fascinating. One of the best films of 2011.
"Birdy" (1984) is a bizarre entry into the post-war trauma genre where a young man (Matthew Modine) returns from Vietnam with an unusual obsession to turn himself into a bird. Director Alan Parker tracks the progression of his Birdy's growing instability as he morphs from eccentric to serious illness, through the eyes of his closest friend (Nicolas Cage). One of the most innovative directorial choices of the film is to cast Modine as the eccentric unstable one and Cage as the voice of ration and reason. The film is an oddity but works well within a post-war period piece drama.
Added Bonus List:
The scariest film about mental illness without falling into gruesome exploitation: "Frailty" 2001. A father convinces his young sons that God has spoken to him and wants them to kill earth's demons who just happen to be their neighbours.
The most touching depiction of a mentally ill character: Bo Radley in "To Kill A Mocking Bird" (1962) a gentle, simple man who was rumoured to be a monster but proved to be a friend.