Mental Illness In Movies: An Exploration into the Dark Side Hollywood Doesn’t Show You

Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

When it comes to mental illness in movies, I pay close attention.

For instance, there were many people, audience and critics alike, who thought Silver Linings Playbook portrayed mental illness authentically. It’s a movie whose main character suffers from Bipolar Disorder, and its drama—and comedy—largely stems from the effects it has on the sufferer and the family around him. While some of it felt authentic to me, the film leaned heavily on the light side of the disease, and tiptoed around its dark side. Yes, there were manic moments of behavior, but they were most always played for comedic effect.

I do think comedy serves a purpose in such cases—it’s often necessary to laugh at the seemingly unlaughable—however, if the light is to be examined, and subsequently utilized in dramatic storytelling, the dark must be as well. These two extremes must be given an equal spotlight.

I know firsthand the effects of living with someone with mental illness. My sister, Briana, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, the disorder that the main character in No Alternative suffers from. Its symptoms are not dissimilar to those of Bipolar Disorder, in the respect that there are opposing extremes. The opposing extremes come into play in the sufferer’s relationships: they oscillate between extreme closeness and extreme dislike, distrust, even hatred, of others. As you might imagine, this is a nightmare for family and friends—it’s a collective, shared nightmare between sufferer and those people close to the sufferer that most always redefines the relationship into one of mutual suffering—that’s if the relationship lasts. Usually, the sufferer ends up pushing everyone, no matter how close, away. There are a lot more lows than bipolar—the highs one experiences as bipolar are few and far between with BPD—there’s depression, there’s social anxiety, there’s image distortion, there’s physical recklessness, there’s an increased likelihood of severe dissociative states, and virtually all of these hinge on the sufferer’s belief that he or she is the sum total of what other people think of them.

It’s a cruel illness. In other words, there’s no amount of self-willpower that can adequately combat the core of this disorder—you’re not in control of how you feel; rather, everyone else around you is in control of you. At least that’s how you feel. You start off with lots of friends, and slowly but surely, you watch yourself shut them out and push them all away from you—lifelong bonds, gone, often in an instant. It’s nearly impossible to maintain a friendship with someone with BPD—you go from cherished confidant to a target of venom. Imagine, then, what it’s like to be a family member? Walking away, as harsh—and also appealing—as that may sound, just isn’t an option.

Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted

Borderline Personality Disorder is, quite often, genetic. I recently had a child and I would be a liar if I didn’t say that I don’t fear that he might be afflicted with what my sister was afflicted with. People afflicted with BPD also have high rates of corresponding disorders, such as anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders and suicidal behavior. My sister suffered from all of these. To be frank, it’s amazing my sister lived as long as she did.

I struggle with the idea of others suffering from BDP on a daily basis.

Movies have the ability to not only create life, but also transcend death. I think that’s ultimately the underlying motivation for any artist to create art. It’s a noble, if not sacrificial, pursuit. It’s also a way of reaching a greater understanding of people, and for me, in this case, a way of understanding my sister. On screen, such characters can be examined and scrutinized, but also distilled and enjoyed, and used as reflections—mirrors to hold up to the world, to examine the world, to examine ourselves, in hopes of making us better, of changing us, perhaps in some fundamental way.

The Official Trailer for No Alternative

Filmmaking should be a struggle for understanding. It’s not escapism; it’s confrontation. Sufferers and non-sufferers alike need to confront mental illness. It’s the only thing that can help.

Not only does Hollywood rarely fund projects that deal with mental illness, but when they do, the movies also tend to lack nuance. Mental illness is often portrayed as one of two ends of an extraordinarily wide spectrum: self-evidently manic, disturbed, and “crazy,” or so silent it seems the interior of the character has been sucked into a black hole. Mental illness does not operate like this; as with all other physical illnesses, there are innumerable levels of severity and each illness effects each individual differently. The main character in No Alternative, Bridget, suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder; however I do not name the illness in the film. I do this intentionally. BPD was first referenced in DSM-III as an official psychiatric diagnosis in 1980, and in the ’90s, it was not an illness that was diagnosed as often as it is now. It took 10 years of enduring mental illness, and an onslaught of prescription medications, before my sister was properly diagnosed. You can only tell the character on screen has BPD if you know what BPD is, and that’s the point. We can sometimes tell if someone is suffering from mental illness just by observing them, but it’s near impossible to determine what the specific illness is. On the contrary, if someone has a cast on their leg, it’s a safe guess that they’re suffering from a broken leg.

We are not as open about mental illnesses as we are about broken legs. If we were, can you imagine how much more understanding there would be? People often forget that the brain is a part of the physical body; suffering from a mental illness—whether temporary or chronic—should be as normal to the outside observer, or family member, or employer, as the common cold. The severity differs, but the stigma—or lack thereof—should not. In order to empathize with the mentally ill, we need to have a better understanding of what they’re suffering from, and that understanding requires a proactive effort on everyone else’s part.

If mental illness is as common as the common cold, it is safe to say that we have all suffered from mental illness—in one form or another—at some point in our lives. We need to admit it. No Alternative not only depicts one character who suffers from mental illness, but several characters who suffer. I don’t spell out what they’re suffering from because it’s not spelled out for us in our day-to-day reality.

If this frustrates an audience, that is fine. It is a perfectly fine reaction. Perhaps it will compel a viewer to want to learn more about the nature and variety of mental illness. No Alternative is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Check it out and lets discuss how it effects you. If your reaction, positive or negative, starts a conversation involving mental illness, I have done my job:

“I won’t make shorthand movies because I won’t manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths.” – John Cassavetes

[Portions of this article originally appeared in an article I wrote for Film Slate Magazine]

William Dickerson received his MFA in Directing from The American Film Institute in Los Angeles. His debut feature film Detour, which he wrote and directed, was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. His third feature film, Don’t Look Back, debuted on television to 1.1 million viewers on LMN. His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. He recently adapted and directed the film version of No Alternative, which is scheduled for a worldwide release through Gravitas Ventures in April 2019. Film Threat declared the film, “a rare indie gem that delivers solidly on all fronts with no missteps.”

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