Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoë Kravitz
High on the list of movies playing locally that deserve a look is It’s Kind of a Funny Story—a rich and unusual film that really defies categorization. I’ve called it a comedy/drama, but it’s not all that comedic. The comedy is of a sweetly gentle nature; it’s never unkind and it rarely goes for big laughs. It’s also not the film you might expect in that it never makes mental illness cute and blessedly never succumbs to the “magical crazy person” syndrome, where the mentally ill are more in tune with the world than “normal” people. To use an easy example, this is about as far from King of Hearts (1966) as it’s possible to get. This film depicts genuine pain and even tragedy—albeit not in a hopeless manner.
The movie is, in fact, very much a piece with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), though it’s a much slicker, more polished work. The duo co-wrote Half Nelson, then moved to co-writer/co-director status with their next film, Sugar (2008), which I haven’t seen, but the reviews make me suspect it’s also of a piece with their other films. That they have branched out in an apparent attempt to edge from indie to mainstream with their latest will undoubtedly be viewed with scorn in some quarters. But, frankly, this film strikes me as being also a step forward in filmmaking and not a sell-out in the least. If anything, it’s more indie than mainstream, and yet it contains aspects of both worlds.
The “kind of a funny story” the film tells centers on 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist, TV’s United States of Tara), a young man with clinical depression. As the movie opens, Craig—who has stopped taking his medication—finds himself obsessed with thoughts of suicide, which lead him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital only to find that the children’s ward is closed for remodeling and he’s being put in the adult ward. Not surprisingly, he has a change of heart, but finds that signing himself in comes with the catch of a five-day minimum stay. This was never his plan in the first place, since he needs to finish an application for a school his father wants him to attend, and he is absolutely desperate that no one at school—where he already feels he doesn’t fit in—should learn where he is.
The film follows his encounters in the hospital—primarily with the seemingly more-together-than-most Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who functions as something of a mentor to Craig, and a pretty girl his own age, Noelle (Emma Roberts), who has issues with harming herself out of self-loathing. More or less against his own wishes and by accident, Craig starts to bond with people and begins to find himself—or at least find the prospect of finding himself.
There are many revelations along the way—not the least of which is how Craig’s status with his classmates changes due to his situation (no, the secret of where he is doesn’t keep long). But these are best left to the film to reveal, not me. Many moments are surprising, and it’s delightful to find that the filmmakers aren’t hesitant to embrace the fact that this is a movie—shifting effortlessly from recording the events to reacting to them by way of fantastic insertions, some of which are reminiscent of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), but with their own vibe and identity. The “Under Pressure” sequence built around the David Bowie/Queen song (an inspired musical choice) is especially good, but so are the manipulated images and the animations that crop up in the course of the film.
The acting is very strong throughout, but the most surprising performance comes from Zach Galifianakis. His performance starts out in the comic mode the viewer expects, but it slowly transforms into something else—something infused with pain and even tragedy. The truly remarkable aspect, though, may not be the performance, but the way the film ultimately handles the character. That—and the movie’s refusal to pigeon-hole itself—may be off-putting for some viewers, especially those who like things to be tidy. These, however, are the very elements that make the film refreshingly original and very much worth a look. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language.