The Mental Health Film Festival
Updated: May 20
Books, movies and stories are great ways to deal with mental health issues that avoid awkward stigma issues and make those who are suffering feel like they aren't alone. Movies, especially can have a profound impact if only because way more people see movies than read books. Hollywood for the most part shies away from mental illness in films because of its complexity and stigma, but there are a few select films that definitely go there. Seeing a fictional character that is dealing with mental struggles, and watching as they overcome them with the help of others is cathartic and empowering.
Here is a list, in no particular order, of movies that I personally have found inspiring, enlightening, and entertaining that deal with areas of mental health and fitness. Some directly deal with mental illnesses, and some deal more broadly with the human condition, but all are movies that I recommend for anyone wanting a moving story that celebrates the human spirit. I wish Hollywood would make more like these and fewer mindless, violent sequels, but at least we have a few like these.
1- It's a Wonderful Life 1946 Directed by Frank Capra starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
This holiday classic wasn't well-received when it first opened, but it's become one of the most popular and inspiring movies shown every December. George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is a decent and kind many who falls into a rash of bad luck, facing jail and bankruptcy for his company because of an error that wasn't his fault. He ends up depressed and ready to jump off a bridge when an angel from heaven comes to save him.
What happened to George Bailey could happen to almost any of us. A string of bad luck, a financial collapse, a traumatic life event, and many start questioning their place in the world. The premise of this movie is to show what would happen if we were never born at all. There would be a hole in the world, an empty void, and many of the good things we did would never have happened and trickled town to others.
Of course everybody isn't as good as George Bailey, but no one is as evil as Mr. Potter either. We're more complicated than most movies can portray. We need to appreciate our lives and the people in them, and this movie shows us how blessed most of us really are. (Admittedly by going a bit overboard, but the message is wonderful.)
The clip below comes at the climax of the movie, when George Bailey realizes how good his life truly was and wants to go back to it. It's A Wonderful Life is occasionally a dark and hard to watch movie, but the ending is so joyous and life-affirming, it gets me every single time.
2- Inside Out 2015 Pixar animation studios starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and more.
This is one of my favorite Pixar movies and it tackles the tricky world of human psychology with humor, insight, and emotion. In this animated film, humans are guided by a control room of emotional avatars who coordinate with each other to guide their human through the day. Inside Out focuses on an 11 year old girl, Riley, who has to deal with moving to a new city and all the other challenges of childhood.
The star of the movie, Joy, played by Amy Poehler, tries to take charge and tries to protect Riley from bad feelings or memories. Her nemesis, Sadness, played by Phyllis Smith, mopes around and makes everyone uncomfortable. Both Joy and Sadness are swept away on an adventure together and Inside Out becomes a fast-moving buddy picture where you're not quite sure what they're trying to say about our emotions.
But the final 15 minutes of the movie, exemplified by the clip below, showed something beautiful and surprising. Sadness is able to save Riley from running away, and by causing her to express her feelings, fears, and emotions, she salvages Riley's relations with her worried parents. It's an incredibly moving ending to a satisfying movie, and it shows to both adult and children audiences the importance of all feelings, both happy and sad.
3- Silver Linings Playbook 2012 Directed by David Russell, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro.
Romantic comedies can seem like light, escapist fare, where you pretty much know how things are going to end, and hope the chemistry between the two leads makes you want them to get together. Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best romantic comedies I've ever seen, and its depictions of the mental illnesses of its main characters is refreshing and honest.
This movie was nominated for 8 Oscars the year it came out, including the director and all 4 main characters. Jennifer Lawrence was the only winner. Bradley Cooper portrayed a character with bipolar disorder who was released from a mental institution after a violent episode and forced to live with his parents. Jennifer Lawrence's character had mental health issues of her own after losing her husband and displaying symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Robert De Niro, playing Cooper's character's father, suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The three of them navigate their mental struggles admirably throughout the film, with powerful dialogue especially between Cooper and Lawrence.
Silver Linings Playbook is a great movie for anyone suffering from stigma, as it shows its characters as valuable, human, and strong, even as it showcases their vulnerability and delusions. It's okay to be diagnosed with mental illness, and you can still have a happy life, which is the opposite of what stigma tells us. The film climaxes with a joyful dance competition that lets its characters shine despite their struggles.
The scene below comes at the end of the film, and it showcases great acting and chemistry between the two leads, and shows growth for their characters as well. I dare you not to cry.
4- Good Will Hunting 1997 Directed by Gus Van Sant starring Matt Damon, Bruce Affleck and Robin Williams
Good Will Hunting tells the story of a troubled young man who works as a janitor in a college he could easily have attended and excelled at. Matt Damon plays the main character and he and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for their writing of this story. Damon plays a tough, cynical genius who has a dark past and won't confront it.
Into his life comes Robin Williams, who also won an Oscar for his portrayal of the psychologist that works with Damon's character. This movie give an honest look at what therapy can be like, with all the probing questions and angry denial that comes from people who don't think they have any problems.
We should all have therapists like Robin Williams in this movie, as he plays down his manic personality to give a sensitive and tough portrayal of a psychologist with his own problems. Williams is finally able to break down Damon's character's defenses by making him face his childhood abuse. "It's not your fault," he tells Damon over and over again until Damon finally gets it. Sometimes messages take a while to sink in. This portrayal of a therapy breakthrough, as depicted below, shows how hard it is sometimes to face the intense sadness and guilt that come with troubled childhoods.
5- It's Kind of A Funny Story 2010 Directed by Anna Boyden and Ryan Fleck, starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts.
It's Kind Of A Funny Story is a sweet, surprising little comedy about a troubled teen and his 5 day stay on a mental floor of a hospital. Craig, the main character, is a stressed-out teen with a loving but clueless family who contemplates suicide one day, and then checks himself into a hospital the next, afraid of the dark thoughts he is having.
There he meets Bobby, played wonderfully by Zach Galifianakis, who becomes a complicated role model and friend during his short stay. Bobby shows Craig how to live more without fear, and Craig listens carefully to his new friend, exhibiting compassion for his new friend and his struggles. The hospital scenes show a variety of people in various stages of mental illness, and I have no idea how realistic it is, but the portrayals are believable. Stigma has no place here, and Craig gradually realizes that he can't keep hiding his problems from his family and friends. After initial teasing, most of his classmates confide that they, too, have periods of sadness and anxiety.
In Hollywood style, the progress that Craig makes seems incredibly unlikely for a 5 day stay. He meets an impossibly beautiful teen girl played by Emma Roberts and starts up a romance, while also discovering that he's a budding artist and needs to change career direction. Craig not only figures himself out during the stay, he helps his catatonic roommate, who ends up dancing to Egyptian music at the end. If you brush aside the unrealistic Hollywood elements, (which they sort of nod at near the end of the movie) this is a pleasant story of someone facing depression and suicide and overcoming them through the power of both good counseling and friendship with the other patients.
6- Groundhog Day 1993 Directed by Harold Ramis starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.
Groundhog Day is one of the best movies ever made in my opinion and one of the most amazing and funny journeys of the human spirit ever filmed. TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is forced to go to Punxatawney, Pennsylvania to cover the local groundhog festival, and his sarcasm, snark, and condescension show just how shallow and unhappy he is at the beginning of the film.
The great gimmick of this movie is that Phil is forced to live Groundhog Day over and over again, learning new lessons each time about what works and what doesn't. This is a profoundly metaphysical film about what life is all about, and why it's so important to grow as a human being and think of others besides yourself.
Phil goes from narcissism to depression to suicide, until he finally realizes that to get the things he wants- love, respect, companionship- he has to change his attitudes and think about others. The clip below shows when Phil thinks its just a medical or mental problem that can be easily fixed. He later discovers that a complete lifestyle makeover is what he will need to escape the hell of his repetitious, meaningless existence.
7- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1975 Directed by Milos Foreman starring Jack Nicholson
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was based on a popular novel by Ken Kesey. Kesey spent time working in a veteran's hospital for institutionalized mental patients. He saw that the patients there were being mistreated and didn't think most of them belonged in an institution.
The movie won multiple Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Actor. It covered the lives of a group of men in an mental institution, and how their lives were transformed by Jack Nicholson's character, Randall McMurphy- a rough and rude criminal who got himself committed to avoid a worse punishment. McMurphy inspires a sort of rebellion amongst the inmates, one that is eventually squashed by Louise Fletcher's evil Nurse Ratched.
Cuckoo's Nest is one of the first ones that people think about when they think about movies that cover mental illness. The time period when the book happened was sixty years ago, and things have changed a lot since then. Still, it's informative to watch how an unscrupulous and power-hungry medical staff can make things even worse for their vulnerable, damaged patients. (See the clip below and watch how Nurse Ratched destroys one man who had just learned how to stop stuttering and stand up for himself.)
Cuckoo's Nest is a dark story with a sad ending, but it has a lot to say about mental institutionalization at that time. The hero of the book, and the movie, turns out to be Chief Bromden, a tall and quiet native American who calmly watches everything and then uses McMurphy's inspiration to break free from his own mental bondage and break out of the institution at the end.
8- Tomorrowland 2015 Directed by Brad Bird starring Britt Robertson and George Clooney
This Disney action movie has little to say about mental health, but a lot to say about optimism and hope (which are essential to mental fitness). It follows the travels of its spunky heroine Casey, (played well by an equally spunky Britt Robertson), as she tries to figure out a vision she had of a fantastical and hopeful new tomorrow.
George Clooney plays the curmudgeonly Frank Walker who is certain the world is about to end because he has some bizarre contraption in his house that tells him so. Casey is gifted with a magical pin that allows her to access memories of Tomorrowland, a fantastical place of space travel and optimistic energy. In trying to find her way there, she encounters a strange parade of characters, there only to add action and suspense.
The reason I love this movie was its unabashed optimism about the future. Mind you, space travel and jet-packs are not necessary to have a world full of optimism, but if you've ever been to the Tomorrowland at Disney World, this was the vision. (This movie also gives a cool look at the 1964 New York World's Fair, where Walt Disney had a big influence)
Tomorrowland is the first place I ever heard the Cherokee story about the two wolves (Google it- it's great), and it's one of the few that I've seen that shines a bright light on optimism and never getting discouraged. Britt Robertson is precious, but the highlight of the entire movie is the clip below, where Hugh Laurie's evil Dr. Nix tells the others why their negativity is bringing on the end of their world. This speech should be seen by everyone who questions whether cynicism and denial are mentally sound.
9- City of Ember 2008 Directed by Gil Kenan starring Saorse Ronan, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins
I first learned about City of Ember by reading the original book by Jeanne DuPrau. It tells the story of a city built deep underground during a time of tribulation on the surface. The residents of the underground city had no knowledge of their history or that there was even a surface to go up to. All they knew was their city and the immense darkness that surrounded it. For 200 years the citizens of Ember went about their business believing what they saw and not trying to explore what they couldn't see.
The 2008 movie is fairly faithful to the books but not quite as good. (They rarely are.) Saorse Ronan plays Lina, the heroine who finds the long lost instructions on how to get back to the surface, not understanding what they are. As the lights of Ember begin to dim and things start falling apart, it becomes apparent that Ember is doomed.
This story is about what people do when they face imminent doom. Some try to hoard and build survival stashes, some deny the obvious, some panic, and some look for answers. Lina asks plenty of questions and gradually figures out the true nature of her world and what to do. By doing that, she finds the way out, taking a cute boy, Doon, with her. With determination and an open mind, she finds an underground river that leads out and makes her way up to see the sun rise for the first time. Then she somehow drops down instructions for everybody else in Ember to escape as well.
I still think of this movie from time to time when confronted with darkness and doom. There's always another pathway. Always.
10- The Perks of Being a Wallflower 2012 Directed by Steven Chbosky starring Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson
Perks was based on a popular book by Steven Chbosky, and the marketing of this movie de-emphasized the mental health aspects of the story to make it seem like more of a coming of age story. Harry Potter star Emma Watson was prominently featured in ads, but the star of this movie is Logan Lerman. Lerman portrays troubled teen Charlie who has to start high school after the death of his close friend and his own treatment for mental illness.
Charlie awkwardly navigates the unforgiving world of public high school and lucks into a friendship with two seniors- brother and sister Patrick and Sam (played excellently by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson). The chemistry between these three is wonderful, and as they invite Charlie into their world, he begins to gain confidence and self-esteem. He finds a caring teacher played by Paul Rudd who wisely advises him the message of the book and movie- "we accept the love we think we deserve".
This movie is a lot like other teenage coming of age movies, but the mental health angle is out in the open and well presented. There are tales of childhood sexual abuse and teen homosexuality that the main characters have to struggle with, and it's the love, friendship, kindness, and caring that heals them, not Prozac. There's no stigma with these teens, who tell Charlie "Welcome to the island of misfit toys," when he arrives. The ending, presented below, brought a tear to my eye, though I still can't quite figure out why driving though a tunnel in Pittsburgh and standing on a truck bed is so liberating, but I guess it is.
11- Joker 2019 Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix
I hesitate to include this movie on the list, if only because of its dark portrayal of mental illness. Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a failing comedian and clown who is pushed to the brink of madness by the uncaring society around him. Joaquin Phoenix does an amazing job of acting as Arthur has to deal with rejection, medication problems, and uncaring therapists, and he won the Oscar for Best Actor that year.
This movie is inspiring only in that it shows the struggles of mental illness that are real and consequential (albeit exaggerated for a movie about a comic book villain). It shows what NOT to do when facing mental illness and it opened up a lot of discussions when it came out about how we treat those who are struggling at the edges of society.
12- Dear Evan Hansen 2021 Directed by Steven Chbosky and starring Ben Platt
While the Broadway Musical of Dear Evan Hansen won Tony Awards and acclaim, the movie version was a bomb and widely panned. But if you watch the actual movie, it pretty much tells the same story of a sad loner who is struggling through high school. The title character finds himself embroiled in a movement to honor a teen suicide at his school, and through misunderstandings and deceptions, he becomes that dead teens best friend posthumously.
Some of the controversy involved the casting of Ben Platt from the Broadway production at the age of 28 to play a high schooler. But at its core this movie is a touching story full of flawed characters who stumble their ways towards understanding by trying to deal with the tragic end of one person. The ending improves upon the Broadway play by having the main character make up for his deception somewhat. And the show includes one of the most inspiring and touching anthems to mental health, You Will Be Found.
Other movies on mental health worth checking out. (I haven't seen all personally, but they show up in multiple online lists of best movies on mental health.)
- A Beautiful Mind
- The Skeleton Twins
- Benny and Joon
- Girl, Interrupted
- Rain Man
- What About Bob?
- Out of Darkness
- Prozac Nation
- Eighth Grade
- Brittany Runs a Marathon
- The Fisher King
- What's Eating Gilbert Grape
- Little Miss Sunshine
- Matchstick Men
- Infinitely Polar Bear