“You can’t tell me that you’re not in there somewhere.”
The combination of my dissertation on autism and watching Benny and Joon last night inspired a blog post about mental illness and the movies, not necessarily an easy topic to tackle but one which I think has been done well on a number of occasions. Three movies immediately spring to mind for me: Rain Man, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and, of course, Benny and Joon.
Rain Man is clearly the most successful of the three, bringing autism to the mainstream in a way that no other movie I can think of has. Perhaps, Mercury Rising; a tale of Bruce Willis trying to save an autistic boy from a gang of government assassins, tried, but while the depiction of autism is fairly accurate, the film is more a thriller than an in depth look at how the disease affects people.
For this we have Rain Man. There’s a fair amount of criticism for Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of autism, which I think is unjustified. Yes, not all autistic people are savants with “special skills,” but if we forgive Hollywood that much, Hoffman’s portrayal of routine rigidity and repetitive speech is right on. Tom Cruise, in one of only two roles I can put up with him in, also gives a strong performance as Charlie, who discovers on the same day that he has a brother he never knew he had, and that that brother is severely handicapped. The growing relationship between the two is very well written, with the final scene where Raymond rests his head on Charlie’s made extremely poignant now that the audience has some understanding of what this means in an autistic individual.
Interestingly, all three of these films located mental illness within a sibling relationship, the second of two brothers being Gilbert Grape. I have only seen this movie once (soon to be rectified as I have the DVD) but I was completely astounded by the 19 year old Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of “mentally handicapped” Arnie. I’ve seen some reviews that call him autistic, but I don’t buy that, even though there are elements of autism in Arnie. In the film itself, his illness is never defined, (which is quite often the case in real life) but DiCaprio’s portrayal is both sensitive and fearless. While you may expect the film to centre on Gilbert (Johnny Depp) and Arnie’s relationship, it’s more a film about how he relates to his morbidly obese mother, who has become house-bound since Arnie’s birth, and how Arnie’s illness and his father’s subsequent suicide has affected her. Gilbert Grape gives a very real insight into what it is like to live with a disabled child and how this can affect every aspect of your life, but it doesn’t let itself turn into a macabre tragedy.
This is something also brilliantly achieved in Benny and Joon, a film I’ve written about before and cannot recommend often enough. Essentially Benny and Joon is a romantic comedy, with some classic funny lines, but at the same time it depicts the struggle between Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn), who no longer feels he can look after her, but can’t deal with the guilt of “farming her out.” What makes this film special though, is the introduction of Sam (Johnny Depp, again), an eccentric and naive character who in a lot of ways is more vulnerable than Joon. The way the two characters complement eachother is perfect, Joon teaches Sam to write, while he shows her that unpredictability is not always a threat. Joon, like Arnie, is never given a label, although its clear her illness is closer to Schizophrenia. Masterson gives a great performance, making Joon a strong character who knows about her illness and how it affect people and isn’t just a someone to be pitied. Lines such as, “Don’t underestimate the mentally ill, we know how to count,” and “having a Boo Radley moment are we?” attack the presumption that mental illness removes a persons ability to understand their effect on others.
All three of these films are great achievements which I think show mental illness in a more accurate way than you would expect from Hollywood. The fact that none of them wallow in pity for the ill characters or their families makes them far more poignant than any 2 hour tragedy mourning the ravages of mental illness, instead giving us a real idea of what it’s like to live with these diseases.
All three are on my Movies to see list, and I’m sure once you’ve seen them you’ll find yourself recommending them as often as I do.