Movies on mental illness will inevitably be judged by one’s own experience, whether close or casual. This degree of scrutiny hasn’t deterred film-makers from tackling this tricky subject.
In decades past, movies set in mental institutions could be viewed as too remote to make an accurate judgment, given they were inaccessible to the general public.
But mental illness is now more prominent in many people’s lives, thanks to the rise in dementia, and widespread substance abuse.
Certainly, film-makers haven’t held back on Alzheimer’s disease, with examples such as Julianne Moore in Still Alice (2014) and Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead (2020). More recently, they have been joined by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Supernova, or the yet-to-be seen Anthony Hopkins in The Father, and Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth is Missing.
The list on substance abuse is much longer. Alcoholism and morphine addiction were first portrayed way back in the 1930s. Since then, the range of illegal drugs has widened considerably, with some of the best dramas showing the effects of having an addict in the family (Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy, both from 2018).
Mental illness has long been associated with institutionalisation, though this has come a long way since 1948’s exposé, The Snake Pit, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018) had its catch-22 moments as a young woman (The Crown’s Claire Foy) inadvertently commits herself to avoid a stalker. But she finds that, the more she protests her sanity, the greater others are convinced she needs treatment.
Somewhat unfairly, Unsane depicted the medical profession as running a racket, though this was toned down at the end.
A similar setup is contained in the Spanish language rom-com Loco por ella (Crazy About Her), a Netflix original in which a journalist (Alvaro Cervantes) goes undercover in a private psychiatric clinic. He also finds it harder to get out than in.
He is pursuing a young motorcyclist (Susanna Abaitua), whom he met at a nightclub, and has hopes she will continue their budding romance. She is bipolar and has no further interest in him than their one-night fling.
The tone changes when the journalist realises his only hope for release is either to behave himself, and show he no longer needs treatment, or to escape with his new friends.
All have a variety of disorders, from memory loss and depression to Tourette’s syndrome and schizophrenia. Each is skilfully drawn, and this is particularly effective when they are visited by their families, who are coping with their own struggles.
None of these disorders has an easy cure. The patients, unlike the journalist who reports on them, have few choices about their future. Like most rom-coms, the plot has its share of incredulous moments. But the ending has sufficient empathy to change minds, thanks to Dani de la Ordern’s sympathetic direction.
Netflix rating: TV-MA (mature audiences). 102 minutes
The Penitent Thief
Since he ended his five-year stint in the locally-made TV series Hercules (1995-9), Kevin Sorbo has appeared in other long-running series (Andromeda), and dozens of low-budget action shows. He now fronts much of the output from the evangelical Christian version of Hollywood, which has more misses than hits, due to low production values, clichéd plots and poor acting. His roles have diminished with time, and his latest is no exception. As King Herod, he loses his temper and hands out a few orders. The heavy lifting is left to others in Don Willis’s adaptation of his novel that parallels the life and death of Jesus with that of two brothers. At an early age they are forced into banditry. One of them, Dismas (Jay Giannone), denounces his past deeds to become a fisherman and Christian. But he, too, is unable to escape the Romans. The fast-moving story and locations (mainly in Texas) help to hide the shortcomings and lack of sophistication compared with most Biblical epics.
Rating: Mature audiences. 93 minutes.
In his first two features, Another Earth (2011) and I, Origins (2014), writer-director Mike Cahill displayed originality rarely seen in the science fiction genre. Both starred his co-writer Brit Marling. She has been replaced, this time, by Salma Hayek as a mysterious homeless woman with telekinetic powers. She uses them to control the life of a stressed-out executive (Owen Wilson), who has just been fired and whose boss subsequently meets an untimely end. The two big Hollywood names then engage in strange, drug-induced events, as they work their way through different worlds – a nasty computer-simulated fake one that is all too real, and another more suited to movie stars. The transition is achieved by coloured crystals, leaving no doubt which world is really real. The journey is worthwhile, even if you’re left more mystified than when it started (and not to be confused with a 1985 movie of the same title).
Amazon rating: 16+. 104 minutes.
Sweden’s first original from Netflix is a snowbound version of backwoods drama Deliverance that plays on urbanites’ greatest fears. A biracial couple from Stockholm (Anastasios Soulis and Anna Blondell) and their dog are soon in danger when they go on a hiking weekend to see the Northern Lights in a remote valley inhabited by gun-toting reindeer hunters. At first the plot follows a predictable course, as rifle shots disturb their couple’s first night camping in the snow. It gets much worse as the back story unfolds of why they are there and being hunted. They are not the innocent characters from the city they appear, and those shooting them are not just bigoted locals. The term noir is often applied to Scandinavian thrillers. Here it has some literal relevance, while co-writer and director Alain Darborg provides plenty of twists in extreme conditions.
Netflix rating: TV-MA. 86 minutes.