It's Kind of a Funny Story: Depression Lite

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K.C. Bailey

Zach Galifianakis (L) and Keir Gilchrist (R) star in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s It's Kind of a Funny Story

In It's Kind of a Funny Story, a 16 year-old boy named Craig (Keir Gilchrist) ends up in a New York City mental ward. He tells the admitting doctors he is suicidal, but really, he's more pre-suicidal, casting around for a dramatic way out of his rather un-dramatic teenaged problems (getting into a top college, having a girlfriend). Once inside, he realizes he doesn't want to be there at all — "I thought you guys could do something quick" he says wistfully, eying the exits — but he's obligated to stay five days. Let the healing begin.

The movie is an adaptation of Ned Vizzini's young adult novel, and shares with it the central gag that Craig is stuck with the adult crazies since the children's psych ward is being remodeled. This contrivance means that Craig gets to befriend messed-up grown ups like Bobby (Zack Galiflanakis, in a mellower take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Randle McMurphy) and share a room with a muttering Egyptian man named Muqtada (Bernard White) while at the same time falling for the teenaged cutter Noelle (Emma Roberts) down the hall. For Craig, who lives under the constant pressure of paternal expectations (The normally laid-back Jim Gaffigan plays his dad as a never-ending source of stress), being on psychiatric lock-down is like Match.com with life lessons.

In its notion that life in a mental ward can be really neat — even Craig's mom (Lauren Graham) comments, not completely ironically, that it seems like a nice place — the movie teeters perilously close to both the gooey and offensive. Despite the pleasant, loopy energy and fine performances — Galiflanakis conjures a surprisingly sad character, and I grew fond of Gilchrist, with his impenetrable black eyes and rosebud mouth — you walk out of it shaking your head. Shouldn't the impulse to make a cute movie set in an insane asylum be grounds to have one's head examined? It seems especially weird and surprising that co-writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, should have chosen a project like this for their third feature film after displaying such sure-footedness in their critically lauded Half Nelson and Sugar.

But it's worth considering precisely whom the movie is meant for. It's not labeled as such, but It's Kind of a Funny Story is squarely aimed at young adults. It's a teen romance with a public service message, like cinema's cooler answer to the ABC Afterschool Special. (The generations that grew up on those lessons in the 70s, 80s and early 90s mocked them mercilessly, but have we been able to forget them?) Teen suicide is a lamentable problem that doesn't seem to be going away. Witness Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's tragic plunge off the George Washington bridge on Sept. 22, Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince hanging herself in January, and the remarkable spate of deaths in Palo Alto, Calif. last year in which five high school students committed suicide on the tracks of the local commuter rail in the course of just seven months. Palo Alto is arguably one of the nation's most intense breeding grounds for youthful success and its issuant pressures, and as Craig tells us in goofy little flashbacks, that's the kind of community he lives in too.

So while it may seem trivializing to have a boy's suicidal urges take the kind of fortunate twists that in the space of a few days land him kisses from two pretty girls and the rediscovery of a forgotten talent, the impulse that lands young Craig in the hospital is not something to be scoffed at. His problems, in comparison to the ones the adult inmates have, are far easier to surmount. Craig (and his parents) need an attitude adjustment more than anything else. Like all teens, particularly troubled ones, he needs someone empathetic to listen and offer help. Craig is not being bullied at school, or having his intimate encounters broadcast on the Internet; his woes are sort of "depression lite" compared to these cases with national profiles. Given the Clementi case, you'd have understood if the distributors had panicked and pulled It's Kind of a Funny Story from its release date out of fear it might be considered seen as trivializing teen suicide. That's a tough call; I'd say the message that gaining outside perspective on one's problems can make a huge difference to a teenager isn't a bad one to send out into the world at this point.

Morever, the movie makes a valuable point about teens and depression: Craig's popularity skyrockets amongst his friends when word gets out that he's in a mental ward. Teens love drama; even the girl he adores from afar, Nia (Zoe Kravitz) is suddenly interested in him. The realization of this irony — that popularity is based on bizarre and unreasonable factors and should therefore should not be taken seriously — is a reiteration of something our knowing pop culture has been playing with for years. (Think of 1989's Heathers, where a mean girl's popularity grew by leaps and bounds after her supposed suicide.) But this fact might not necessarily be obvious to teens. And for them, It's Kind of a Funny Story is not likely to seem tasteless or trivial. It may even speak to them.