I caught 'It's a Kind of a Funny Story' on Netflix last night, a decent enough movie set in a psychiatric unit.
Starring Keir Gilchrist (Craig), Emma Roberts (Noelle), Zach Galifianakis (Bobby), it's an occasionally bittersweet comedy based on Ned Vizzini’s novel - recognised as a 2007 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
The story opens with Craig contemplating jumping from Brooklyn Bridge, before checking himself into a psychiatric clinic. Because the teenage ward is undergoing renovations, he discovers his fellow patients are mostly adults – apart from Noelle, who has been self-harming.
The book got rave reviews, but although the film avoids a lot of psych ward cliches, the characters are mostly affectionate rather than disturbed. There are rarely moments of tension, and the only time staff have to react to an incident is when Bobby, having mucked up an interview for admission to a group home, starts tossing books from a shelf and has to be restrained.
There are amusing fantasy sequences. Craig reimagines singing ‘Under Pressure’ at a group music session in the bombastic style of Freddie Mercury, accompanied by patients in glam gear.
Any movie whose central theme is raising awareness about mental health issues is worthy. Some critics complained that making a comedy set in a mental institution trivializes the subject. Locked wards and medicated patients are invariably the focus of drama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remaining the benchmark.
But in the context of a comedy as opposed to a ‘serious’ movie, it could be argued there’s a darkly humorous element about certain elements of the story. Craig starts his evening poised on a bridge parapet over traffic, only to fret about missing school in the morning because the clinic requires a mandatory one-week stay. Amongst the other patients is a Hassidic Jew who has fried his brain after dropping 100 acid tabs in one night, and complains about the least bit of noise. Another, a recluse, is only persuaded to prise himself out of his bedroom by hearing his native Egyptian music.
A Guardian review went so far as to describe the movie as ‘sickly, implausible and frankly questionable.’ Fair enough, except the screenplay is based on Ned Vizzini’s book – which is autobiographical. Vizzini was vocal about his struggles with severe depression, frequently writing and speaking about the subject. He took his own life in 2013, aged 32.
There are amusing cutaways, a familiar trope for movies based on teen books, and fantasy sequences. Craig reimagines singing ‘Under Pressure’ at a group music session in the bombastic style of Freddie Mercury, accompanied by patients in glam gear.
The end result is a feelgood movie based on mental health issues. Craig confides in the head physician, Dr Minerva, he wants to become an artist, admitting to being thankful his condition isn’t as bad as some of the other patients. In his voiceover at the conclusion, he appreciates his stay has helped him a lot, and he can look forward to getting through the rest of his life with the help of his family, friends and, of course, Noelle.
There’s also a fabulous soundtrack, including The Damned (‘Smash It Up’), Tom Robinson Band (‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’), Pharoah Sanders (‘Soledad’ – playing when Craig describes a wonderful memory to a therapist), Black Sabbath (the majestic ‘It’s Alright’) and a beautiful piano rendition of The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind,’ by Maxence Cyrin.