Now that the red carpet Louboutins and Oscar de la Renta gowns have come and gone, we’d like to extend our congratulations to this year’s motion picture nominees. Sure, this year’s Academy Award lineup featured the usual gripping historical dramas and soaring epics, but it also included stories that dealt honestly with the all-too ordinary struggle of mental health conditions and substance abuse. Moviemakers often sensationalize those struggling with mental health issues, portraying them as villains bent on destruction or as victims beyond all hope of recovery. But this year, a number of films told a different story with nuance, honesty, and restraint.
In The Master, Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix gave one of the year’s most memorable performances as Freddie Quell, a scarred and troubled veteran whose anger, erratic behavior, and potent home-brewed alcohol leave him unable to keep a home, a job, or a relationship. He falls into a community that revolves around a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd tries to dispel Freddie’s demons through hypnosis and dubious theories about trauma in past lives, but in the end we’re left with little hope of Freddie’s recovery. The Master shows the shortfalls of addiction treatment in the early 1950s, before society understood that addiction was a disease instead of a moral failing.
Flight initially soars but ultimately disappoints. Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot leading a convincing (and thus Best Actor nominated) double life: cocaine and alcohol binges at night, and dazzling flight heroics by day. The film lends insight into the self-deception of a highly-functioning alcoholic and ends on a realistic note about the consequences of addiction. Ultimately, though – and through no fault of Washington’s – it skips from clichéd images of substance abuse to hackneyed platitudes about recovery, without actually showing the recovery process.
The Invisible War, nominated for Best Documentary Feature, casts an unflinching eye on military rape and the devastating mental health repercussions of a system that blames victims and protects perpetrators. Military sexual trauma causes higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than combat does, and the film’s stories reflect the truth that PTSD accompanies high rates of substance abuse and attempted suicide. As one woman put it, “I was homeless. There was addiction. I was selling drugs, packing a gun.” Several women described a culture of mandatory binge drinking and superiors who used alcohol to blame the victim and excuse the crime. In one especially striking visual of a woman piling her stove with prescription pill bottles, The Invisible War shows how the military often prescribes addictive cocktails of opiates and anxiety drugs instead of treating the underlying trauma.
Alcoholism features prominently in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a small-budget gem that won the adoration of viewers (including us!) but unfortunately didn’t win the Oscar it deserved. This mythical story follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a fearless little girl who lives in a flood-ravaged Louisiana tidal basin called the Bathtub. Cut off from mainstream civilization, residents of the Bathtub live off the land, observing their own folkloric tradition replete with drunken revelry. Indeed, several members of this small, tight-knit clan appear to be alcoholics, most notably Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who is never far from the bottle. Though Wink’s illness is never named, it’s implied that he suffers from liver failure associated with heavy drinking. Yet, to the filmmaker’s credit, Wink does not conform to the stereotype of the raging alcoholic father; he is brash and mean at times, but he is also big-hearted as he teaches Hushpuppy the survival skills she’ll need when he’s gone.
Lincoln‘s political talk-fest nearly made a clean sweep of the nomination categories, with nods for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design…not to mention Daniel Day-Lewis’s shoo-in Best Actor win. But we were particularly struck by a less obvious performance: Sally Field’s passionate portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. Known as a “difficult woman” at best and as clinically insane at worst (her son had her committed to an asylum in 1875), Mary Lincoln has become one of those historical myths about whom we modern Americans love to hypothesize. Was she mentally ill? Was she bipolar (a diagnosis that didn’t exist at the time)? Or was she just under a lot of stress? Field’s humanizing portrayal leaves all possibilities open, so that when Mary tells her husband in the film, “All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy,” we can’t help but disagree.
Finally, the dark horse candidate, Silver Linings Playbook, essentially a (gasp!) romantic comedy, manages to unassumingly leave familiar rom-com territory behind and achieve the Big Three of Oscar nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture. Although only Jennifer Lawrence went home with a win, both she and costar Bradley Cooper offer depictions of mental illness by running the gamut of emotions—warm and lighthearted one minute, desperate and angry the next. Unsurprisingly, the film came from a place of compassion and true understanding; the director’s son struggles with a mood disorder, and the executive producer grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic parent. It’s a team piece that speaks out on behalf of so many. As the producers explain, “it might help audiences see that mental illness is just that—an illness, comprising but one part of a person’s whole.”
Emma Edelman, Alisa Harris, Kate Schmier