It’s not new that end-of-year movies hoping for awards are often heavy and intense affairs. Films with serious subjects and feature powerhouse dramatic performances are usually saved for release in November and December to be freshest in the minds of critics and award voters, so it’s never a surprise that a binge of end-of-year movies turns out to be quite a morose and sometimes depressing ordeal. I’ve almost gotten used to and always prepare myself for the glut of movies that will test my emotional endurance, being sure to save the occasional comedy or light-hearted animated film for when it is most necessary to lift my mood.
But, among all the usual seriousness this season, a new trend emerged for me in the awards contenders. Maybe this thread has always been there, and I just never noticed, but for some reason, I really saw it this year. Beyond the serious subjects and intense performances, I noticed one specific thing that kept popping up in movie after movie, and that was the fact that a major character—sometimes even the central character—is suffering from severe mental illness that is not only undiagnosed but is unrecognized or sometimes not even mentioned at all.
Now I realize I am certainly no mental health expert, but any layman can see what’s happening with these characters. I was pretty disappointed to see, in movie after movie, that a character’s noticeable illness was being used to further the story or create tension and conflict instead of being recognized and addressed. It could be that I’ve been ultra-sensitized to the existence of mental illness as a current plague in our country, living in Los Angeles, where mental health is so closely tied to our current homeless crisis or the fact that I live in the United States of America, where the mass shooting epidemic if also too often blamed on lack of mental health support. But I also believe that the first step in addressing mental health is to discuss it.
So, in an effort to not only continue to shine a spotlight on some movies that are entirely worthy of awards consideration and are, in most cases, excellent movies (some of which are among my favorites of the year, in fact), I also hope that maybe we can take a different perspective on these characters and their struggles, to hopefully spark a conversation and provide some inspiration to be more aware and accepting of mental illness as a legitimate issue that should be addressed instead of ignored.
Here are six movies that are not only worthy of seeing but are worthy of discussion from a mental health perspective. WARNING: I will discuss each film, which may contain plot and character details, so be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.
While I genuinely admire director Steven Spielberg’s loving homage to his parents and his childhood, there is no denying the character of the mother, played with tenderness and usual texture by Michelle Williams, is experiencing mental health issues. It’s understandable for her mental illness to be written off as eccentric back in the ‘50s, but it’s disappointing that Spielberg didn’t use his hindsight to address his mother’s mental struggles. While it’s clear that his mother’s unusual behavior and penchant for being excessively high or low inspired and encouraged his own artistry and creativity, I wish Spielberg could have found a way to address what might have possibly been the source of her manic behavior and acknowledge that a little professional help might have helped her to find a little more peace.
Charlotte Wells’ small-but-mighty film about a woman’s memories of a childhood holiday spent with her father is moving and powerful. But so much of the film is centered on the daughter’s memory of her father’s mood and behavior, which is described as melancholy in the marketing for the film. But let’s be real. The character of Calum, played masterfully by Paul Mescal, suffers from severe depression. He, of course, hides it from his daughter, but Calum is in a very dark place, possibly even suicidal. While the unspoken depression is a vital part of the film and what makes it so moving, it is essential to recognize it, and I hope that it is included in any discussion of this magnificent film.
Speaking of a necessary discussion, how can we not talk about Ralph Fiennes’ character in director Mark Mylod’s dark comedy/thriller The Menu? To say he’s lost it is one thing, but he’s brought everyone else with him. There is clearly a cult-like vibe in this kitchen full of people willing to die for Fiennes’s brilliant Chef Slowik, but what is it that’s driving Slowik himself? Is it simply revenge, or is it more than that?
While there is an element of simple insanity in Slowik’s actions, the root of it is a disassociation from himself and his dreams. He has become disillusioned, depressed, and resentful. He is targeting specific people for specific reasons, and there’s nothing random in his actions. So, is he a sociopath, or has he just snapped? Could all of this have been avoided if he had just found a good therapist? The character is fascinating, and I would have loved a deeper analysis, but where would the fun have been in that?
Of course, no discussion of mental health in awards contenders in 2022 can exist without talking about The Whale. Brendan Fraser’s searing portrayal of Charlie, an obese man who faces his own mortality, is incredible and certainly award-worthy. But the film, directed by Darren Aronofsky and based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, shies away from specifically addressing the fact that, clearly, Charlie is eating his feelings. Depressed beyond measure following the suicide of his partner and his distance from his daughter, Charlie has allowed himself to fall into an emotional abyss, which manifests in his physical appearance.
Some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol after a trauma or a loss; Charlie is addicted to food and uses it to attempt to suffocate his pain. Every medical issue Charlie has is addressed in the film, but none of his emotional and mental ones are. They offer him a doctor, but nobody ever offers him a psychiatrist. So much analysis of this film is centered on Charlie’s obesity when it needs to be understood that he’s no different from any other addict who needs help. Food is just his chosen drug. Here’s hoping the discussion of this film focuses as much on his mental state as it does his physical one.
Empire of Light
I may not be a fan of this film, despite how beautiful director Sam Mendes has made it (with significant help from cinematographer Roger Deakins), but the performance from Olivia Colman is one for the ages. Of course, she’s good in everything, but the depth and texture she delivers in her portrayal of Hilary, a quiet, lonely manager of a seaside movie theater in the early 80s, is magnificent and most certainly awards-worthy. But what makes Hilary such a deep source of material for Colman to explore is that she is suffering a significant mental breakdown.
The film briefly references the fact that Hilary has had issues in her life before, even spending time in a mental facility, but, for the most part, her emotional and mental instability is played for dramatic effect, ostensibly sweeping her illness under the rug, almost minimizing it. Some people seem to care about Hilary, but none seem to notice what she’s going through. It is a devastating look at someone who is suffering not only alone but in silence. We can appreciate Colman’s staggeringly powerful performance, but it’s essential to see Hilary’s struggle and appreciate it as much more than a dramatic plot point.
The Banshees of Inisherin
And then there’s one of my favorite films of the year, The Banshees of Inisherin, director Martin McDonagh’s brilliant dark comedy about two friends breaking up. Brendan Gleeson plays Colm, who decides he no longer wants to be friends with Padraic, played by Colin Farrell. Colm and Padraic live in a small town on a remote island off the Irish coast. It’s 1923, so there’s not much to do besides farm and drink, and Colm and Padraic have been best friends, drinking together every day for years. But Colm has decided that he no longer wants to spend his time chatting with Padraic and tells him so. Padraic is naturally confused and wants to understand why Colm has decided to just up and end their friendship. But between Padraic’s insistence on an explanation and Colm’s commitment to severing all ties to Padraic, things start to go haywire, as Colm goes to extremes to let Padraic know how he really feels.
He begins by cutting off his own fingers to prove how serious he is, and things continue to escalate to him even burning down his own house. Now, I understand that the whole point of the film is the ramping up of events, and it’s supposed to be over the top and bizarre, but ignoring Colm’s mental state seems almost frivolous. He’s clearly massively depressed and is searching for meaning in his life; it’s essential to recognize that his actions are manifestations of Colm’s own desperation. But, of course, the entire point of the film is to illustrate the pointlessness of it all, so there is no way to address Colm’s mental state within the bounds of the film. Nor can there be a proper address of the mental state of Barry Keoghan’s character, Dominic, who is living in an even deeper emotional hole than Colm is. But it would be good to acknowledge the varying levels of mental health displayed in all the characters and the myriad consequences that play out.
Here’s hoping that, as more audiences find their way to these films and others that feature characters with mental health challenges, we can see the whole picture, to appreciate the movies for the fictional works of art that they are, but also to find ways to recognize that, sometimes, within the human drama unfolding on screen is a lesson to be learned about real human emotions and the challenges sometimes faced in the area of mental health. It all starts with talking about it, and there’s nothing we love talking about more than really great movies.