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9 Exceptional Mental Illness Films to Watch During COVID-19

Our culture has come a long way since “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” While the 1975 Jack Nicholson film is indeed a great one, it is nowhere near an accurate picture of what mental illness and treatment look like today. Here are some more accurate depictions of mental illness, all of which are truly exceptional movies. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I salute these dramatically excellent if not sometimes difficult-to-watch films.

1. “Silver Linings Playbook”

In his breakout dramatic role, Bradley Cooper plays a high school teacher with bipolar disorder who, upon experiencing a violent nervous breakdown, is sent to a mental hospital. The film begins as he is released from treatment and goes to live with his parents in Philadelphia.

In the most accurate portrayal of mania on screen, in my opinion, Cooper’s Pat stays up all night bingeing on Ernest Hemingway novels, then busting in on his parents’ bedroom at 4 a.m. to yell out theories about the characters in “A Farewell to Arms.” He also meets and falls in love with Tiffany, a widow with borderline personality disorder (BPD), masterfully portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence.

2. “Donnie Darko”

Titular character Donnie hallucinates a man-size bunny rabbit who tells him mischievous deeds to do. Donnie floods the school, breaking the water main with an axe, and also burns down the house of a local motivational speaker — played by Patrick Swayze — who turns out to be a pedophile. 

What transpires is true dynamite filmmaking.

3. “Melancholia”

Indie director Lars Von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Nymphomaniac”) paints a sharp and lifelike picture of depression in this art film starring Kirsten Dunst (Justine), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skaarsgard. The film is mostly about a planet called Melancholia that is poised to crash into Earth and the lives of two sisters in a wealthy family.

“Melancholia” is a product of Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy,” with “Antichrist” preceding it and “Nymphomaniac” following. The inspiration for the film came from a major depressive episode Von Trier experienced himself. Kirsten Dunst nails her portrayal of the depressed Justine, for which she won Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

In several scenes, she looks disheveled and is depicted staring blankly out the window. She sleeps day and night. She is seen needing help getting into the bathtub. When her sister Claire cooks her favorite dinner, Justine takes one bite and declares, “This tastes like ashes.” She cries hysterically at the dinner table. Von Trier captures what depression feels like more than any other film I can think of. 

4. “Black Swan”

This psychological thriller features a perfectionist professional ballet dancer played by Natalie Portman. From a mental health standpoint, this one has it all: dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and an eating disorder. Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of this multifaceted mentally ill character. 

5. “What About Bob?”

Bill Murray stars in this comedy about a man with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) whose psychiatrist, Dr. Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss, who has bipolar disorder in real life) is a published author renowned for advocating patients to take “baby steps” towards their goals of recovery.

Bob tracks his doctor to his vacation home in New Hampshire, where he befriends the doc’s family while staying with a couple at another residence. Bob overcomes his many phobias, while driving Dr. Marvin absolutely “nuts.” It’s a now-classic stroke of comedic genius.

6. “Born on the Fourth of July”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t an illness that was recognized by the psychiatric community until 1980, but it is on full display here in “Born on the Fourth of July,” an Oliver Stone film based on Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s autobiography. 

Tom Cruise plays the all-American protagonist who enlists in the Marines and goes on two tours of duty in Vietnam. The source of Kovic’s PTSD is a series of events in which his Marine unit kills a number of Vietnamese villagers, believing them to be enemy combatants. In a daze, Kovic accidentally shoots and kills one of his fellow soldiers as well.

Wounded on another tour of duty a few years later, Kovic is left paralyzed from the chest down. After a stint in the VA hospital, he returns home to his parents’ house only to be haunted by flashbacks and eventually succumbs to alcoholism. He feels flashbacks when firecrackers go off at a Fourth of July parade. 

Giving a speech, a baby begins to cry and Kovic freaks out, immediately reminded of a baby crying in the village in Vietnam. It’s a vivid portrait of PTSD, which is also portrayed in films such as “The Hurt Locker,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Ordinary People.” 

7. “The King’s Speech”

Social anxiety is on full display as Colin Firth plays the stuttering King George VI of England, who employs the help of a speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) in order to prepare for his first wartime radio broadcast about Great Britain’s 1939 declaration of war on Germany.

The story of the stutter and how he overcame it was a hit with the Academy. This movie won Best Picture at the 2011 Oscars and Firth won for Best Actor.

8. “A Beautiful Mind”

Russell Crowe plays the role of John Nash in this true story of a mathematician struggling with mental illness. Nash is the toast of academia after he pens an article on “game theory,” inventing a new concept that would be coined the Nash equilibrium. 

In the thick of the Cold War, Nash is given an assignment with the U.S. Department of Defense to encrypt enemy communications. His mental health soon deteriorates as he starts hallucinating the existence of Soviet spies in his everyday. 

These are signs of paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis which he receives when admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2002. 

9. “Infinitely Polar Bear”

Director Maya Forbes created this autobiographical film based on her own experiences with a bipolar dad in the ‘70s. Perhaps that’s why the movie is so accurate in its portrayal of bipolar disorder. Quirky. Eccentric. Adorable. In “Infinitely Polar Bear,” the bipolar character Cam Stuart is a super-likable guy. Played by Mark Ruffalo, Cam is a fun-loving father in a family of four just trying to get by. 

Never mind his turn as The Incredible Hulk in the blockbuster “Avengers” moviesRuffalo excels is in indie roles like these, going back to his breakthrough in the 2000 indie drama “You Can Count on Me.”

In this time of COVID-19, why not take the time to explore the movies I’ve listed above? They are all top-notch films that can help you pass the time while most of us are still sheltering in place.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments.

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