by HELEN GEIB
How do you judge the difficulty level of making something when you only see the end product? One measure is the overall industry success rate: the lower the success rate, the greater the difficulty level. By that standard, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the co-writers/directors of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, have done something that’s very hard to do. They have made a really good movie about ordinary people suffering from mental illness.
The hero of the story is 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist). He is in most ways a typical middle-class kid; he lives with his parents and younger sister in New York City, where he attends a good public high school. However, the usual pressures of teenage life are exaggerated by depression, inadequately addressed by monthly therapy sessions and medication. Frightened by a recurring suicidal dream, Craig goes to the emergency room of a hospital near his home early on a Sunday morning and asks for help. He is admitted to the psychiatric unit for observation, for a minimum five day stay.
What happens next is not notable for its originality. The movie’s time frame covers Craig’s five days in the hospital, during which he meets Noelle (Emma Roberts), a pretty girl his age who has come closer than he has to killing herself; has helpful therapy sessions with a competent and kind doctor (Viola Davis); and interacts with other patients, from some of whom he learns valuable life lessons. In particular, he is mentored by Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a fellow-sufferer whose symptoms are much more severe than Craig’s, and who is due to be released on the same day.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is an adaptation (of a Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini), which distinguishes it from Boden and Fleck’s prior films Half Nelson and Sugar; those were from original screenplays and most definitely took some very unexpected turns. What all three films have in common is truthfulness and a generous love for their characters. Sad and funny, often in the same breath, they’re serious-minded films that are also hopeful and life-affirming.
I hope millions of teenagers see this movie. Of course I’d like for millions of adults to see it too, but I especially hope teenagers see it because it would be good for them. (It’s not unsuitable for children, but they won’t understand it.) Craig is someone teens in the audience can readily identify with. The character is likable, believable, and sympathetic, with realistic worries and preoccupations. There’s no magic bullet cure for his illness, but he does leave the hospital much better off. Living with the other patients has given him perspective; it’s shown him where he falls on the spectrum, and shocked him into a new appreciation of what he has. Meeting other people who need help and discovering that he wants to help them has taken him out of himself.
I hope I haven’t made the film sound ponderous. It’s anything but. There’s a lot of humor, both character-based and situational, with the serious scenes set off by lighthearted moments. The pacing is brisk and the acting is excellent. It doesn’t feel confined, even though Craig never leaves the hospital for the duration of the story and only leaves the psychiatric floor for a couple of short adventures. Craig narrates his experiences and the camera follows him into his memories, dreams, and daydreams, each given its own distinct visual style.
3 1/2 stars
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