10 Movies That Get Depression Right
Posted on December 6, 2011
The filmmaking business revolves mainly around manufacturing fiction in ways that conform to expectations and maximize profits. It ends up perpetuating more unfortunate stereotypes and misconceptions rather than use its lofty position to educate while entertaining. Mental illness, for example, rarely receives sensitive portrayals; look at how many villains live with schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, substance abuse issues, and other diagnoses. Depression, which gets off comparatively easy when compared to some conditions, often ends up oversimplified as little more than "the blues," cured with a little love and a lot of smiles. In reality, it’s a serious mental health issue as complex as the individuals wrestling with it. Some brave directors, screenwriters and actors have decided to address the myriad facets of depression’s true face in direct defiance of the myths. While they don’t always parallel the different experiences out there, they certainly open up a window to a sadly common and misunderstood emotional, psychological, and physiological sickness.
Ikiru (1952) dir. Akira Kurosawa:
Crippling depression and existential woe as a direct result of terminal illness forms the crux of this hauntingly bittersweet Akira Kurosawa classic. After receiving a stomach cancer diagnosis, bureaucrat protagonist Kanji Watanabe aches to eke out meaning in his last year of life. Inspired by a former coworker’s love for toymaking and children, he decides to convert a stinky, abandoned plot into a playground solidifying his legacy. Not every instance of depression stems from such cruel physical suffering, of course, but Ikiru beautifully, tragically captures the overlap. Even those battling depression outside chronic illness might relate to Watanabe’s struggle to discover a purpose and center to keep him from fully succumbing to the emotional turmoil.
Le feu follet (1963) dir. Louis Malle
Adapted from the novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Le feu follet tackles depression’s manifestations as alcoholism and suicidal behavior — both sadly common symptoms. Fresh out of substance abuse treatment, a man decides to end his own life and heads to Paris so he can see his loved ones one final time. Part of him hopes that they will offer him up some kernel of encouragement. Things don’t necessarily proceed as planned, however. The results reflect the wrenching isolation of depression without an external support structure, and how important loving family and friends are when overcoming the intense condition.
Taste of Cherry (1997) dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Fans of art house cinema might want to pick up this divisive, quiet Iranian film exploring heavy suicide and depression themes. Director Abbas Kiarostami opted for a more minimalistic approach, relaying the story of a desperate Tehran man seeking someone to bury his body following suicide. After a series of rejections, he happens across a taxidermist willing to fulfill his wishes, provided certain conditions go fulfilled. Having once suffered beneath suicidal thoughts and tendencies, however, he offers up some insight the protagonist wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sophia Coppola
Sometimes, depression starts when external circumstances begin piquing internal thoughts and emotions — it isn’t always the result of brain chemistry. Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut based itself on the deeply emotional Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name. In upper-middle-class suburbia, a pair of radical parents keeps their five daughters under nigh-totalitarian subjugation. As neighbor boys watch on, enraptured by their bizarre story, they begin succumbing to the resulting anxiety one by one. Though subtle at first, the sisters eventually react to an almost literal house arrest with increasingly desperate actions until they end up, well, just read the title.
Prozac Nation (2001) dir. Erik Skjoldbjaerg
Some say Prozac Nation fails to properly depict depression, while others think it incredibly relatable. If nothing else, this showcases just how varied the mental health condition can be; even the most "textbook" case will sport its own unique variances, major or minor. Christina Ricci stars in this adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir chronicling her first experiences with depression. Like many — though by no means all — with such a diagnosis, she self-medicates through substance abuse and unhealthy sex. She eventually attempts suicide while acclimating herself to new medication, though her story ends on a far more hopeful note.
American Splendor (2003) dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Heavily influential underground comics writer (Anthony Bourdain, for example, is quite the fanboy) Harvey Pekar’s life unfolds in an incredible panorama here. Part biopic, part documentary — the real writer appears here alongside his actor counterpart and a drawn, animated depiction — it highlights how depression can lead to incredible creative works. Pekar’s misanthropy and rusty Cleveland backdrop inspired him to write about the mundane and personal neuroses in a thoroughly compelling, often relatable manner. Although one shouldn’t mistake American Splendor as a film exclusively about depression, it does sensitively, straightforwardly address the amazing author’s experiences.
Does Your Soul Have a Cold? (2007) dir. Mike Mills
Documentarian Mike Mills followed around five Japanese people to analyze how the nation approaches depression ever since antidepressants found their way into mainstream advertising. A heightened awareness of their availability led to a spike in both diagnoses as well as prescriptions, completely altering the way Japan’s citizenry perceive and approach depression and depression treatments. Unlike the other movies listed here, this one is straight-up nonfiction, showcasing a sliver of reality regarding depression, anxiety, and psychiatry.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Prepare to bawl until the eyelids dehydrate and fall off from so much salt exposure. Brilliant screenwriter and then-first-time director Charlie Kaufman bottles up the sharp ache of depression and its myriad interactions with innovation and the search for ultimate meaning. As painful as viewing may ultimately prove, many may find the film wholly relatable — or, for those fortunate enough to avoid depression’s ravages, enlightening. While surreal, it still remains lucid enough to relay the emotional turmoil and often deep anxiety accompanying creative block and personal tragedies.
The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Not every depression patient (or their loved ones) will necessarily relate to washed-up wrestler protagonist Robin Ramzinski’s rise and fall, of course. But his fluctuations and frequently self-imposed isolation will resonate with those for whom such actions have become sadly commonplace. Once again, depression triggering a search for some semblance of stability and inherent life value forms the film’s core themes; Ramzinski’s fumbling attempts to connect with others — particularly a beloved stripper and his estranged daughter — effectively capture common interpersonal struggles many depressed so often experience.
Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Kirsten Dunst feels less than fine. Director Lars von Trier conceived of his largely well-received movie during a particular piquant episode, channeling the anxiety and pain into something beautiful and creative. Dunst, who has also publicly grappled against depression, plays a young woman abandoned at the altar. Awash in overwhelming melancholy, she begins fretfully obsessing over earth’s impending collision with a freak rogue planet — named Melancholia. Hardly subtle. But then again, depression isn’t always, either.