After Half Nelson , a film about a teacher with a drug habit, and Sugar , which tells the story of Dominican baseball player suddenly finding himself in the minor leagues in Iowa, It’s Kind of a Funny Story may seem like a departure for the indie directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. And in a sense, it is. The film, which is based off a novel by Ned Vizzini of the same title, was inspired by their shared love of John Hughes movies.
Set in a rather run of the mill mental hospital, Funny Story follows the story of Craig (United States of Tara‘s Keir Gilchrist), a teen attending an over-achieving prep school in New York City. When things begin to stress him out — his unrequited love for his best friend’s girlfriend, the pressure to get in to a prestigious summer school, the state of the world, etc. — he contemplates suicide. Instead, he decides to check himself in to a mental ward, explaining to doctors that he had stopped taking his prescribed Zoloft. Once he checks in (giving up his belt and shoelaces) Craig realizes that he might have made a mistake. Greeted by the motley patients of the adult psychiatric ward, including Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and Noelle (Emma Roberts), Craig settles in for a five-day stay — confined like the teens in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.
As Bobby (who, in a scenario reminiscent of another mental hospital movie, The Couch Trip , initially appears to be a doctor rather than a patient), Galifianakis proves to be a strong father/brother figure for Craig, and his more dramatic moments are well-acted and believable — if totally bizarre. At the press day for the film, Galifianakis revealed that this character is closer to his own personality than anyone else whom he has ever played. Perhaps this film could mark a Bill Murray-like shift in his career from comedic to more serious roles.
However the Hangover star hardly steals the show. There’s just too much competition. Craig’s roommate, an Egyptian man named Muqtada (skillfully played by Bernard White), never leaves his room. Ever. Solomon (Daniel London), another adult in on the floor, finds normal conversation far too loud for his sensitive ears. Despite their initially cold reception toward Craig, it’s his interactions with these fellow patients, as opposed to the doctors, who ultimately help “cure” Craig. It turns out he has something to learn from them.
While others are able to be creative during arts and crafts time, Craig initially finds himself stymied. Here, Noelle — in true Manic Pixie Dream Girl fashion — helps encourage Craig to draw, which is something that he used to enjoy as a kid, and soon he’s regained an important creative outlet. She also helps Craig forget his infatuation with Nia (Zoe Kravitz), his best friend’s girl.
Traditional messages abound in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but the directors were hoping to highlight the struggles unique to modern teens’ lives. As Boden explained, “The world’s in a much scarier place [now]… and with the technology it just feels like all those stresses are accelerated in some times painful ways.” The film does a convincing job portraying this idea, comparing Craig’s current troubles with his younger, more innocent days, when there was a lot more time and a lot less to worry about.
In the end the film is an understated but heartwarming Hughes-esque coming of age story that just so happens to unfold in a pysch ward. The message? Everyone has problems, and we could all benefit from taking a few days — or at least 91 minutes — somewhere peaceful to reflect on them.
Check out the trailer below.