As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s hope it doesn’t fall off the radar. Luckily, an increasing number of TV shows and movies with mentally ill characters are being immortalized on discs and streaming video. As a result, viewers will be reminded about the affliction and its toll on families and people who love them. One of the most popular productions depicting the condition, “Silver Linings Playbook,” has received critical acclaim from many groups. With its recent DVD release, the award-winning movie will extend its life, attracting an even wider following. There is one problem: although well-written and superbly acted, the film’s characterization as a comedy is misguided. It’s like calling “Modern Family” a drama. After all, seeing Bradley Cooper, the “Sexiest Man Alive,” rant and rave, waking up his stressed out parents, seems downright funny. Hilarity ensures when the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lawrence acts up in a diner. But to many of us, scenes like these are as amusing as watching a car accident.
In 1988, movie audiences giggled over the antics of the autistic Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” I went to see the movie with my friends, blissfully unaware of how close to home this movie would hit. Each time the audience laughed at Raymond, I tried to understand they were coming from another world, untouched by someone who exhibits inappropriate and weird behavior. To me, Raymond was real. Every time he embarrassed his brother, played by Tom Cruise, my heart sank. Everyday incidents flooded my mind, from having to protect my older brother from bullies, to his embarrassing outbursts in public. Or when he would play with broken pieces of plastic for hours or wax on about nonsense while my friends tried not to laugh. “He’s talking ragtime again,” my Nana would say. Throughout “Rain Man,” I wanted to scream, “What’s so &%$# funny?” I kept my cool because speaking up would classify me as a kill joy or a drama queen. Instead, I vowed to avoid films about mental illness.
As a movie buff, I am drawn to all films, particularly those with great reviews. So I tried again with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Prozac Nation” and others. Through this exposure, I was convinced that I could become desensitized and eventually gain some objectivity. I reminded myself that most people just don’t understand the havoc that mental illness wreaks. Most importantly, I willed myself to toughen up, so others wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around me.
These movies still affect me, but not as profoundly. Fictionalized portrayals will always be out there, but they will be misunderstood by people who don’t live with the real characters. No film, book or entreaty by an actor will ever improve these situations, but the publicity can result in better policies and eliminate stigmas so that more people will get help. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 60 percent of people with the disease are not treated. So I’m all for raising awareness, no matter where it comes from — even if Hollywood movie stars are delivering the message. Now that’s a silver lining.
Despite increased awareness, we may still get an “I don’t understand” or “Buck up and get over it” look if we criticize popular films because they’re too painful or unrealistic for us. So now I just go with the flow. The other day, a friend said “Silver Linings Playbook” was the best movie he’s seen in a long time. When he asked my opinion, I said, “It was great.” Nothing more. My family got the straight dope.