It's Kind of a Funny Story
by George Sax
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writing-directing team responsible for the new comedy-drama It’s Kind of a Funny Story, have admitted that they’re enthusiastic fans of the late John Hughes, creator of such enormously popular teen-spirit 1980s movie comedies as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This might not seem an obvious affinity, given their first two feature films. The first, Half Nelson, was about a passionately committed high school teacher whose life and career are put in grave jeopardy by a drug addiction. The next, Sugar, followed the difficult story arc of a very young Dominican baseball player who’s recruited by an American team. These two rather dissimilar films shared a sympathetically observational approach to their young protagonists’ struggles.
But that was then, it seems. The two filmmakers were given a copy of Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel about an emotionally troubled 16-year-old and decided to film their version of it. In Funny Story Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) is going through a difficult patch. A child of affluent white Manhattanites and an honors student at an elite high school, he’s anxious and beset with suicidal ideation. So, one Sunday morning at five, he signs himself into the mental ward of a hospital, an act he almost immediately regrets. The ward psychiatrist (Viola Davis), who was initially reluctant to admit him, explains that the law requires a five-day period of confinement, with parental consent. The movie’s about Craig’s transformative five-day stay in this setting.
It’s a funny story, which is what’s so seriously wrong with Funny Story. It offers a resolutely upbeat and humorous treatment of Craig’s predicament and its setting, and before long, this becomes irritating, despite the movie’s determination to be amusing and appealing, particularly to a young audience.
In the course of these five days, Craig gets a firm grip on his emotional disturbance, makes friends, and gains some perspective on his life—via some helpful but rather cut-and-dried counsel from the ward doc. He even finds a love interest in another teen patient. And all of this is only five days!
But realism isn’t where the filmmakers wanted to go. They don’t entirely omit the more upsetting aspects of existence in a mental ward, but they keep them in the background, process them cursorily, or give them a warmly amusing spin. (Even Craig’s catatonic Egyptian roommate turns out to be sort of sweet, and a great dancer.)
If Boden and Fleck set out to emulate one of Hughes’ romantic teen comedies, they’ve come alarmingly close. Hughes’ skill was in creating smoothly put-together pictures that presented kids with a flattering depiction of their gripes and concerns. The high-schoolers in Hughes’ movies aren’t only undergoing youthful problems and conflicts, they’re being subjected to the clueless, neglectful, or arbitrary behavior of their elders. The kids’ reactions and harmless victories over the adults comprised much of these movies’ youth-centered appeal; they appealed to kids small-time, narcissistic resentments and assumptions. They didn’t offer much insight into life’s real sorrows and satisfactions, nor did they really purport to do that. And Hughes never set a movie in a mental facility.
Gilchrist, a gifted newcomer, persuasively makes Craig a more attractive young man than he might be in a lesser actor’s hands, but the movie never gives us much reason to take his troubles very seriously. It devotes more attention to scenes like a rock-opera music video, fantasy-sequence rendition of the David Bowie/Queen song “Under Pressure” and, in an allusion to Breakfast Club, a pair of young people gamboling through the hospital’s corridors, and up to its roof.
Funny Story is nothing if not comedically jaunty and upbeat, and it’s rarely more than that.
Watch the trailer for It's Kind of a Funny Story
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