It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s latest directorial venture together is, indeed, kind of funny. It’s also kind of sad, kind of sensitive, and kind of uplifting in turns. But really only kind of anything.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a student at an exclusive, yet public prep school in Manhattan. He’s had sucidal thoughts for some time, but one Saturday night he shifts towards ideation, and the experience scares him into rushing to a nearby emergency room rather than the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s admitted for observation into the psychiatric ward — the adult ward, since the teen floor is being renovated — with its complement of schizophrenics, transvestites, and depressives both inert and violent, including Bobby (Zach Galifinakis) and fellow suicidal teenager Noelle (Emma Roberts). He quickly has second thoughts, but the psychiatrist in charge of the floor (Viola Davis) tells him that there’s a five-day minimum stay for observation. And so he settles in to try and make the best of things.
I spent most of the movie unsure whether Craig really belonged in the hospital, and for a movie about a week in a psych ward that’s not really a great sign. I think Gilchrist did the best with what he had, but as a character Craig is more two-dimensional than the “brain maps” he draws during arts and crafts time. There’s more meat to Bobby and Noelle’s parts, but they’re still only kind of fleshed out. Galifinakis shows some real acting strength, and would definitely be in the running for best supporting actor if the film ever did more than scratch the surface of Bobby’s issues.
I haven’t read Ned Vizzini’s original novel, but since he based it on his own stint in a mental hospital I’m going to have to give him the benefit of the doubt here. I do know that Boden and Fleck gutted Noelle’s part, and that Bobby wasn’t nearly as significant if he existed at all in the novel. Why they decided to give us two half-characters instead of one whole one I don’t know for sure, but something tells me it has to do with wanting to play up the teenage-romance “Love in the Time of Klonopin” angle. But really, if this is supposed to be a story about depressed people, why does it feel like nobody involved has a clue what depression is about?
And if the teenage patients are expected to act like they’re adults, why won’t the filmmakers treat the audience like they are too? Honestly, talk to us about Noelle’s abuse; we can take it. Give us more about Bobby’s suicide attempts; we can take that too. Show us Craig wrestling back and forth between being overwhelmed by all the stressors in his life and hating himself for feeling bad when other people have it objectively worse. We’re big boys and girls, and we can take all of it. A voiceover telling us that it’s not going to be easy after Craig’s week is up doesn’t really compensate for showing the idea that depressed people who aren’t actively harming themselves basically just need a vacation to get their heads straight. If anything, it subtly trivializes the actual problems of actual patients.
What salvages a ruined screenplay is the beautiful filmmaking. Slipping into little asides to show parts of Craig’s mental state is a much more interesting technique than voiceover soliloquies. The drawing sequence and the rendition of “Under Pressure” are both amazing, and the closing sequence is at least creatively rendered. But in the end, are these stylistic considerations enough to make up for a half-finished story? Kind of?
Worth it: yeah, but don’t go expecting much depth from it.
Bechdel test: fail.