Mental Health Through the Lens of Cinema, Episode 1: The Divide Between Genres
Archaic portrayals of mental illness still bleed into the mainstream media of today.
As exemplified by the uninspired notion of “crazy equals evil” recently seen in the hit Netflix original Bird Box (2018) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016), in a lot of modern science fiction these negative stereotypes subtly hinder the significant progress in stigma made in the last decade. On the contrary, drama films, like The Party’s Just Beginning (2018) or Short Term 12 (2013), deal with depression and trauma in ways which are more genuine to real-life sufferers of these afflictions and are far better instances of progressive depictions of individuals and their relationship with their mental health. Is genre the ultimate frontier for better depiction of mental health in films?
The hit Netflix film Bird Box (2018), starring Sandra Bullock, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with supernatural creatures of unknown origin driving people who see them to suicide. The plot is fairly straightforward and familiar to its genre; everything was great until The Big Bad Thing happened! Arguably an overdone schtick but it’s an enjoyable movie regardless.
A pivotal development happens towards the end of the first act; there are a group of people who are immune to the persuasions of the monsters… Who are these people? Oh, of course! They are the patients who have broken out of an asylum for the criminally insane. How are they able to override the monsters’ influence? They’re just crazy, that’s how! It’s a superficial choice to explain a plot point which is irrelevant to the goal of the film and boils down to just creating a redundant secondary obstacle for the characters to overcome.
Narratively, the impact that the writers intended (but failed) to create could have been made more meaningful; instead of writing a stigmatising plot point which villainises an already vulnerable population, they could have focussed on the individuals trapped in the house together, and their dysfunction. The film does do this for a bit, but it falls apart quickly with its unoriginal and predictable choice.
Moreover, adding the sweet little detail of these people being criminally insane rather than your typical neuro-divergent folk, is just as perfect. That way, the fact that the protagonists want to defeat them is fine and justified. After all, they are violent criminals: all logic would point to the protagonists having to defend themselves. These words paint a scene in which “crazy people” are just as blood thirsty and evil as the Big Bad alien monster — a disgusting falsity.
M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 filmSplit is also guilty of further perpetuating the stereotype that people with mental illness are violent. Though a considerably better film, with the definitive feel that actual effort was put into making the writing coherent, when asking the question of how does this affect people’s view of mental illness, it’s hard not to pick-up on the issues.
The film tells us that the dissociative identity disorder (DID, i.e., “multiple personalities”) is the reason for the character being murderous and destructive. The disorder is presented as the root of this, not the character himself. Moreover, the way that film’s clinicians discuss this character, paired with the writer/director’s critical acclaim, makes it seem as if it were grounded in truth, even though it is not. The film adds fuel to the fire of the stigmatisation of mental illness.
The irony in all of this is that science fiction is a genre where the viewer goes in expecting dissonance from reality, yet negative portrayals of characters with mental illnesses do still influence the way that we perceive the people around us, even if we — the audience — are not fully aware of it. Comic books, and their movie counterparts, are famously known for their “crazy” villains. The fictional city of Gotham and it’s Arkham Asylum solely exists to remind you of that fact: mental illness and violence go hand in hand. Yet, when we step back into reality, we forget that this is simply untrue.
Unlike with the science fiction and action genres, mental health in dramas is a far more prevalent plot point. Likewise, it is more honest and relatable to audiences than the offhand comments about how sick and evil a character often seen in those genres.
Short Term 12, starring Oscar Award winner Brie Larson, delves deeper into the personal experiences of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is the story of social worker Grace and how she lives with her PTSD, brought on by years of abuse at the hands of her father. We see what triggers her PTSD and how this culminates in emotional outbursts, panic attacks, numbness, the inability to be intimate with her fiancée, and self-destructive behaviour. The film presents the messy and disruptive nature of PTSD without romanticising the character’s pain, and she is never ‘cured’ of her PTSD in order to be happy.
Thoroughbreds (2017), The Party’s Just Beginning (2018), and another Brie Larson film, Room (2015), are three more examples of candid and compassionate portrayals of living with mental illness.
Though these four films differ in their stories and the mental disorder that they cover, they are related. The four female protagonists have all experienced some sort of traumatic event, but — reflective of real life — they all respond differently to the trauma. Some become self-destructive, or emotionally absent, while others seek help. Some get better, some get worse. This sort of range is incredibly rare in films outside of the drama genre.
Of course, drama movies do not do this just for the sake of being “true to life”. Drama writers are driven to create stories that are believable yet emotionally challenging. As audiences, we seek to relate to characters on a personal and emotional level, even if it means crying watching an actor’s “raw” performance. However, undoubtedly, the ultimate result is a more genuine depiction of human suffering and mental illness.
Why is there such war between genres? Drama tends to focus more on emotional and relational development, whereas science fiction prioritises the overarching plot over the single character arch. This is why we typically see more vivid portrayals, of mental health and personal stories in general, in dramas, compared to action or science fiction flicks.
However, although these films are somewhat limited by the constraints of their genre regarding the level of emotional depth they can convey, storytellers have a fundamental responsibility to depict characters’ experiences honestly. In fact, a good storyteller can push at these very boundaries and tell stories that go beyond the expected format.
But, does this ever happen? We will discuss this in my next Episode, “Merging Genres for a Stronger Story”.