DVD Release Date:  February 8, 2011
Theatrical Release Date:  October 8, 2010 (limited)
Rating:   PG-13 (for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and strong language)
Genre:  Comedy, Drama
Run Time:  100 min.
Directors:  Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Cast:  Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan

A film about depression that isn't depressing; how's that for a small miracle?  It's Kind of a Funny Story is a title perfectly suited to this appealing slice of despondent life, one that comes by its laughs in insightful ways.

Craig is a clinically-depressed and near-suicidal teenager who begs to be admitted to a counseling center before he makes the ultimate wrong choice.  With the teen-wing under renovation, Craig is checked into the adult psychiatric ward for a five-day minimum, and the experience becomes more than he bargained for.

Sort of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by way of John Hughes, it plays like a movie about Ferris Bueller's best friend (Cameron Frye's Week Off, if you will).  What unfolds is a refreshingly honest look at depression.  Craig is not saddled with the usual Freudian hang-ups.  He has no daddy issues.  His mommy hugs him.  They say "I love you."  His parents aren't perfect, but they are perfectly normal.  Craig isn't.  Why? Because he's sick.  Depression is an illness.

Removing the normal psychological clichés right off the top goes a long way in establishing the film's credibility, not to mention lifting the stigma often associated with the mentally ill.  Even when all of the social variables are favorable, people can still find themselves in a funk—sometimes seriously.

Yes, Craig has pressures—and yes, his parents' hopes and expectations compound them—but they're not out of the realm of the ordinary teenager.  If anything, Craig's home life would be rightly perceived as a healthy environment (as his well-adjusted younger sister attests).

Meds aren't simply thrown at the problem, either (as much as Craig might want that easy-out).  It's Kind of a Funny Story rightly portrays both fronts—psychological and biological—as factors in depression, but never easily reduces it to either.  It's an elusive mix of both that requires counseling and treatment to overcome, and on a very specific individual level.

While the elements of treatment are there, the story doesn't get bogged down in them (as similar films have).  Rather, it's primarily a look at the importance of community—albeit a highly eccentric one here.  They are a motley crew of the mentally ill, most of whom provide nothing more than comic relief and flavor, but for Craig there are two who make a profound impact.

The first is Bobby, played by It-Comic Actor of the Moment Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover).  Predictably cast as the unpredictable oddball, Galifianakis is in his wheelhouse of weirdness, playing bizarre thoughts completely straight.  He excels above similar actors (even good ones, like Jack Black) by layering his quirk with edges of melancholy—whether for laughs, poignant revelations, or  simply to keep us guessing.

The other main influence is equally predictable: a girl.  While Noelle fills a stock role, up-and-coming actress—and Julia niece—Emma Roberts (Hotel for Dogs) makes her authentic.  She plays up neither the meet-cute moments nor emotional wounds, letting charm escape her guarded sadness, and has a playful sarcasm to boot.  As Craig, Keir Gilchrist (Showtime's United States of Tara) anchors the story in similar fashion, living out the awkwardness and angst while not insufferably lost in it.  That balance makes him empathetic, not pathetic, and we can relate.

As counterproductive of an atmosphere as a psychiatric ward can be, the setting allows Craig to can gain perspective on his own anxieties and fears.  He is our cipher, helping us to do the same, to think about what worries and even depresses us, to see those things in a broader picture and realize that, in most cases, even the worst-case scenarios aren't really as bad as we let our minds make them out to be.

Indie darlings Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden deliver a lighter affair than their previous directorial efforts (Half Nelson, Sugar), and the transition in tone feels effortless.  They stay true to their naturalistic sensibility while, for the first time, finding humor in it.


Animation is also used in inventive splashes, but Fleck and Boden never sacrifice realism for the sake of style or a joke.  Indeed, this isn't a jokey-script at all, nor is their direction.  Still, they have a flair for crafting a funny and accessible entertainment (best exemplified in a daydream sequence that turns David Bowie's "Under Pressure" into a triumphant anthem).

It's Kind of a Funny Story is also an uplifting one.   It has laughs, drama, and pathos.  Realism may be softened a bit, but the experience is no less credible.  It inspires us to embrace life—to run, hop, skip, breathe, live!—in a way that makes us firmly believe we can, and that we can handle anything come what may so long as we do it together.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  No illicit drugs or alcohol are consumed; only references made to drug use and acid trips.
  • Language/Profanity:  Profanity is not used regularly but does occur on occasion—the b-word, s-word, and one f-word.  Someone uses the middle finger.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Two teens make out heavily on a bed; fondling of breasts.  A minor character is a transsexual; the words "tranny" and "transvestite" are used.  A close-up of breasts in a shirt with a low-exposing neckline.  Characters talk about having sex (as a reference,  not explicitly); use words like "laid" and "boner."  A drawing of a penis.
  • Violence/Other:  A few instances of "stress vomiting" (unexpected vomiting instigated by momentary stress).

     

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com
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