• ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Depicting mental illness in pop culture is a difficult proposition, but some filmmakers take up the challenge, portraying mental maladies as something more than a patronising storyline.
Travis Johnson

3 Jun 2019 - 4:50 PM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2019 - 4:30 PM

You’d think we’d be better at it by now. Statistically, 45% of adult Australians will be affected by some form of mental illness in their lifetimes, with 3% badly affected. People who are, have, or will deal with mental illness are not a minority – they make up almost half the population – that’s a wealth of experience.

But perhaps it’s the sort of experience we don’t like to talk about, or at least that we want to distance ourselves from. When it comes to mainstream cinema, depictions of mental health challenges cover a broad spectrum, but they tend towards the simplistic. The mentally ill are either monsters - Psycho (1960), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Se7en (1995), any number of Batman films; or they are comedic fodder – Crazy People (1990), What About Bob? (1991), The Cable Guy (1996); or they are conduits through which our heroes learn life lessons – Rain Man (1988), Garden State (2004) and any of a hundred Manic Pixie Dream Girl rom-coms.

Often mental illness is just a screwdriver in the avant garde toolbox – a narrative conceit that lets a filmmaker show off their brio. David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) are both fine films, but they are certainly guilty of this trope, with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s bifurcated protagonist and Guy Pearce’s vengeful amnesiac enduring symptoms that change to the demands of the story.

Or else mental issues are an excuse for an actor to go big with their performance – consider Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001), Robin Williams in The Fisher King (1991), Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996) and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Now, it’s true that some mental health problems can result in exuberant, OTT behaviour – bipolar disorder is one, borderline personality disorder is another. But the tendency for symptomatic behaviour to alter in service to performance is the telling detail here. In the case of A Beautiful Mind, while the depiction of schizophrenia is broadly accurate, it is not true to the real-world John Nash’s experience – his life has been altered for narrative and emotional impact.

Movies set in institutions run the gamut. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018) uses mental illness as a threat against its main character, who is institutionalised after her insistence that she is being stalked is interpreted as paranoia. Thankfully, the real villain has all his marbles – the characters with mental illness are allowed to be actual characters.

Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), easily the two most famous films about life in an asylum, both use mental illness as tools to support their own political and philosophical themes, with realism a secondary concern. Based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysen, 1999’s Girl, Interrupted sees Winona Ryder’s suicidal teen institutionalised alongside a raft of fellow afflictees, including Angelina Jolie (who picked up an Oscar for her work), Brittany Murphy and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss. Rooted in actual, lived experience, it takes pains to round out its characters, even if it occasionally still succumbs to the clichés of the sub-genre.

It’s a rare film that focuses directly on the day-to-day experience of living with mental illness with any degree of accuracy, but Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) does a sterling job. Based on Forbes’ own life, the film tracks her experiences in the 1970s living with her bipolar father, Cameron, played with exuberance and empathy by the ever-watchable Mark Ruffalo. While the film doesn’t shy away from how off-putting and sometimes frightening Cameron’s manic flights can be, on the whole it’s a remarkably balanced and nuanced portrayal, anchored by great performances from Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana as his exasperated ex-wife, and newcomer Imogene Wolodarsky, the director’s own daughter, as the young Forbes.

Watch 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
SBS VICELAND, 8.30pm Saturday 22 June 

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Language: English
Director: Maya Forbes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana
What's it about?
Inspired by director Maya Forbes' own life, /Infinitely Polar Bear/ follows Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), a man who suffers from bipolar disorder. After a massive breakdown which forced him to move out of his home, Cameron tries to win back his wife Maggie (Zoe Zeldana) by taking care of their two daughters while she's away studying in New York. But the two young, spirited girls don't make his job easy.


More common mental health illnesses are rarely depicted as health issues at all – perhaps they’re too frequently seen in real life to exhibit the exoticism that cinematic insanity requires. Substance addiction has proved fertile ground for cinema since its inception, with films from The Lost Weekend (1945) to Arthur (1981) to Barfly (1987) to Trainspotting (1996) to Nil by Mouth (1997) using drink and drugs as either the background or driver of their various down-and-dirty narratives, but it’s comparatively rare for films to frame addiction as a mental illness.

Betty Thomas’s 28 Days (2000) takes a decent stab, putting Sandra Bullock’s party girl into rehab for the titular stretch, but it’s Mike Nichols’ Postcards From the Edge (1990) that frames addiction as illness most effectively. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher, the film sees Meryl Streep as Fisher’s stand-in character, who battles cocaine and prescription pill addiction while navigating glamourous, drug-drenched Hollywood and a troubled relationship with her mother (Shirley MacLaine playing, effectively, Debbie Reynolds). Fisher, as we know, kept writing about her life, her addictions and her mental battles, but this remains to date the only cinematic adaptation of her work, which is a shame.

David & Margaret Review 'Postcards From The Edge'

Then there’s the mental illness all too many of us will face – dementia. The fading of mental faculties with age has played a part in many tragedies. It’s the big twist in The Notebook (2004), Nick Cassavetes’ weepy adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ hugely popular novel, which sees Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as star-crossed lovers, with James Garner and Gena Rowlands playing their older versions, coping with the onset of senility. The Savages (2007) puts the focus on the children dealing with an ageing parent, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney sniping away as bitter, estranged siblings drawn back together by their father’s rapid decline.

However, it’s Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice (2014) that delivers the most devastating depiction, with Julianne Moore starring as a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 50. By keeping the focus firmly on Alice and her subjective experience as her memories fade, her ability to work and lead her life fails and her capacity to make choices for herself disappears, Still Alice forges an intense, often unbearably heartbreaking empathetic bond between the viewer and the character. It’s perhaps the most accurate and effective portrayal of mental illness onscreen, precisely because of its lack of showiness and stylistic ornamentation. By stripping the experience down to its bear emotion, Glatzer and Westmoreland make it as real as possible – which is, after all, the treatment the subject deserves.

Watch 'Still Alice' at SBS On Demand


Infinitely Polar Bear screens on SBS Viceland Saturday 22 June at 8.30pm.


If this article has raised any questions or mental health concerns for you, consult the SANE Help Centre for information, guidance, and referrals. Talk to a mental health professional (weekdays 10am - 10pm AEST) on 1800 187 263.  For urgent assistance call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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