"How much will you indulge in your flaws?"
Having bounced back to movie-watching since a long time, this first entry was a genuine surprise for me for a couple of reasons:
At the start of the film, the audio commentary was played by default, and James Mangold, notable for his works on Wolverine, introduced himself as the director. I loved "The Wolverine", and because Mangold showed that he knows how to write compelling characters, my anticipation for the movie grew. Even with that expectation in mind, however, I didn't really expect the comic book movie director to be able to tackle something as serious as mental issues well enough, or tactfully for that matter. But Mangold proved otherwise.
I had the preconceived notion that this was going to be one of those (generally) lighthearted quirky comedies with a dash of maturity on the side, like so many movies about mental illness I've seen ("The Perks of Being A Wallflower" and "It's Kind of A Funny Story" come to mind), so I really didn't expect that it would do anything for my own mental health (social anxiety and a bad temper) more than just spew some pointless platitudes about how beautiful life is. The movie ended up actually making me question my own mentality towards my struggles with my disorders, and that's more than I could say for half of the other movies about mental illness that I've seen.
I'll admit - this movie had me going with its quirky band of mental health patients bonding together against the oppressive institution we've seen so many times in movies set before the 21st century. The institution seen here has all the familiar tropes you'd see about abusive psychiatric hospitals; implications of rape by the orderly and even the resident shrink, seemingly violent handling of the patients, pointless medicine of which its only purpose seems to keep the patients sedated and silenced. All the textbook cliches were intentionally played straight in the first-half of the movie just so I could relate to the patients like they were victims locked up in a prison. Most of these, however, turned out to be a delusion. While it's not an outright deconstruction of movies about mental health, most of those cliches about abusive orderlies and the psychiatric staff were subverted, and the "pointless medicine" even seemed necessary in hindsight. It's a refreshing take on such a topic, and quite a clever one too, considering the story's setting in the 1960s, when abusive institutions were probably more common, in an all-woman's ward no less.
And my god, that silver tongue of Lisa (played by the magnificent Angelina Jolie). When the other patients said she's a sociopath, I thought it was just playful banter. She made mental illness felt normal, like it's a badge of honor you shouldn't be ashamed of. She's like one of those delinquents trying to tell you that it's "cool" to smoke - and I bought every word of hers at first, partially attributed to Jolie's compelling performance. But somewhere down the line, you realized that both Lisa and even Susanna (Winona Ryder) have very real and troubling issues, especially after a suicide is involved. Suddenly, everything's changed and reality ensues. All that fun and quirkiness seemed stupid in hindsight, like a prank you pulled on a homosexual back in high school. It's an amazing flip in perspective that really gives weight to the consequences of untreated mental issues.
While Winora's performance was nothing to write home about, I felt like her straight-man act in this madhouse was necessary for the audience to have an anchor to relate to, someone (relatively) sane among these disturbed and troubled youths. Her random quotes of poetry can get a little flowery and pretentious at times, but nothing that really affects the experience. It felt natural too, considering her passion as an aspiring writer.
With all its amazing subversion, however, this still isn't the definitive handbook to tackling mental issues, naturally, but I feel like it doesn't need to. While its messages about such disorders were light tidbits rather than life lessons, it still offers a number of thought-provoking insights on your mentality towards overcoming whatever disorder you might have, and not just solely the insane kind either. The story tells you that it's easy to make excuses about your anxieties, your bad tempers, your passive-aggressiveness. Its references to "The Wizard of Oz" is appropriate, in that it shares a similar message about looking inwards and make a choice to be more than your flaws. Yes, while mental health issues isn't always something you can just seize control over through sheer willpower, positive thinking does help, as trite as it might seem.
And that's a surprising take from this movie I have, now that I think about it, considering what I said earlier about naive platitudes.
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