A young man contemplating suicide decides instead to admit himself to a hospital in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a low-key dramedy about the confusion and frustration of teenagerhood.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) regularly dreams of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and ending his pressure-filled life at a high school for high achievers in New York City. One morning, the urge is so strong he decides to leave his house, but instead of the bridge he heads to a hospital where he is admitted to the adult psych ward under the observation of Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis, who is — need I even say it? — once again awesome). Craig does not think he necessarily belongs here, doesn’t really want anybody finding out about it and isn’t sure whether his parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) really understand what’s going on with him. He is stunned and a little frightened by his fellow patients, but the guidance of Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) helps Craig start to fit in.
In the trailers and occasionally even in the movie, you feel like you might be about to sink into “wacky fellow patients teach Craig about life” territory. As I write this, I sort of suspect it will read that way — the Hasidic Jew who took too much acid (Daniel London), the guy who never leaves his bed (Bernard White), the self-mutilating teenage girl who shows love-interest potential (Emma Roberts). I even spent a bit of the movie wondering if Galifianakis was headed toward Robin Williams enema-bulb-on-the-nose territory. A few rows behind me in the theater sat a group of teenage boys and I wondered as I heard them not laugh all that much (but not chatter either) if this broad crazy-psych-ward humor was what they had been hoping for in the movie. If they were looking for The Hangover: Mental Hospital, that’s not what they got. The movie was quieter, milder even contemplative. It might have introduced its characters by highlighting their oddball characteristics but it surprised me by how it moved in to give them some depth. It doesn’t get aggressively messagey about mental illness but it does stare at it head on and talk about depression very matter-of-factly, something you rarely see done in movies or on TV. We learn that the different characters have different illnesses and problems but those illnesses don’t generally serve as the single defining characteristic of the individual.
Seen any of the “It Gets Better” videos floating around the Internet universe recently — Chris Colfer from Glee is in one, writer Dan Savage has one, as does Tim Gunn from Project Runway and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family? These short videos, ranging from about a minute to around nine minutes in length, are aimed specifically at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens and deliver, along with encouragement and information on where to get help if you need it, the simple message that it (life beyond high school, etc.) gets better. Not to give too much away but It’s Kind of a Funny Story feels like the long form of this message. Being a teenager can be crushing, the life you live then can feel like the only life there is. Gay or straight, there are plenty of reasons as a teenager to feel, as Craig does, that the universe has tightened itself around him. The movie slowly unravels the tangled problems that Craig feels are so unworkable and allows him to put things — his father’s expectations, his high-pressure academic environment, his friends, the girl he likes — in perspective.
It is a sweet thing, at the end of the movie, to have watched even if the movie isn’t a smooth road while you are watching it.
PG-13 for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (from a novel by Ned Vizzini), It’s Kind of a Funny Story is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features.