It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2010.
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck.
Starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis & Emma Roberts.
Sixteen year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), after dreaming of one too many suicide attempts, checks himself into hospital for depression. However, the child wing is being renovated so he finds himself in the adult psychiatric ward for a minimum of five days. There he meets a collection of quirky characters who help him put his life into focus.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is the latest feature from indie darlings Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, a pair known for dealing with serious topics in a smart, heartfelt yet humourous way. The film opens on (what I believe is) the Brooklyn Bridge, with our protagonist Craig (Keir Gilchrist) walking out onto a metal beam, about to commit suicide. Suddenly his family shows up and chide him for not taking better care of his bike, seemingly nonplussed about his potential suicide. We realise it’s actually a dream but this darkly funny opener sets the tone of the film – serious but quirky. Now arguably this is the formula for most standard indie cinema nowadays, but a number of elements help the film stand out.
Firstly, Zach Galifianakis, an actor already well known for his offbeat comedic chops, puts his skills to the test here playing the bedraggled Bobby, who Craig first encounters in the emergency room he admits himself to. Dressed as a doctor, Bobby saunters into the waiting room and sits next to Craig, asking him why he’s here. It’s only after Craig is admitted to the adult wing of the mental hospital that both the audience and Craig realise he’s actually a patient. Galifianakis plays Bobby with a mixture of his trademark oddball-humour and a tragic, multi-layered sadness, an impressive surprise from the actor. There’s a brief scene of him talking on the phone to his daughter about going swimming when he gets out of the hospital, the camera from the view of Craig who is sort of listening in, standing in as us, the audience, as we get a glimpse into his real life, like us getting a glimpse of Zach’s true acting potential.
The other main characters are reasonably well constructed, with the exception of Emma Robert’s Noelle who doesn’t get much in the way of back story, well acted, but nonetheless, simply there as the key love interest for Craig. Most of the secondary characters exist for comedic relief, (and largely succeed) but unfortunately some are a little stereotypical. However Craig’s room-mate, who stays in bed all day and is representative of the ‘head in the sand’ approach to life’s problems, is a useful character metaphor for Craig. He is eventually drawn out of his shell by Craig playing Egyptian music for him at the ‘pizza party’, and as he leaves his bed and room to enjoy his life, so does Craig, who is leaving the hospital, ready to face up to his life and the challenges ahead.
Keir Gilchrist is a decent enough actor (Galifianakis totally steals the show though) and he play the role of narrator well, especially considering his age. It’s refreshing for an American film to cast lead characters who are actually reasonably close in age to the characters they’re supposed to be playing, rather than twenty or even thirty-somethings playing teenagers!
My second highlight of the film is the excellent music from Broken Social Scene. They’ve worked with Fleck & Boden before scoring Half Nelson, and in this new feature their beautiful and eclectic work fits the tone of the movie exceptionally well. The music soars, yearns and twinkles, aiding us in reflecting the emotions being presented to us on screen.
Music very much plays a big part in the film, from the Broken Social Scene score, to the name-dropping of various indie bands to Craig and Noelle planning to go to gigs when they leave the hospital. But the ‘Under Pressure’ fantasy scene, where Craig is forced to sing the song at music therapy, has to be the most enjoyable set-piece of the film. When he reluctantly gets up to the mike the scene switches to a stage, the characters dressed in glam-rock costumes and coated in glitter, singing the song with him. At the end of the song the scene switches back to the hospital and the cast’s rapturous applause, so we assume Craig has done an amazing job. Musing both on the power of music as an ice-breaker and a form of escapism, the scene celebrates the song as a mutual bond for the residents of the hospital and reinforces their need to overcome their problems, a moral that runs throughout. This idea, coupled with the lesson of growing up and accepting yourself are the two main themes of the film – Craig’s doctor tells him “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is pretty much the message of the whole film.
A film I find I could draw some comparisons to was Running with Scissors, based on the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs’ and his bizarre upbringing. Both are based on semi-autobiographical novels, both deal with characters suffering from forms of mental disorder. However, Burrough’s life story is a lot more sexual and adult in content, the humour far blacker, whereas this story is much more easily adaptable as a likeable, non-offensive film. However some real teeth could have given the film a bite that, at times, feels lacking.
The story is helped along with some nice directorial flourishes – fast editing and voice over are used in various places to explain scenes, almost like Craig is showing us a series of flash-cards in quick succession to keep us up to speed with the story and to wrap things up at the end. The whole tone is very pleasant, almost twee, with excellent music, some sharp dialogue and quality character acting. As films go it’s very enjoyable but I fear it may end up being mildly forgettable, that it may be lost in the now vast sea of quirky indie drama-comedy features. Zach Galifianakis lifts it above water level, but I’m not sure he’s enough to keep it afloat.