A film seemingly designed to get every New York City honors student face-punched at college, It’s Kind of a Funny Story chronicles a privileged Brooklyn high-schooler’s super-cool institutionalized mental-health break. Hot for his best friend’s girlfriend, stressed out over an application to a prestigious summer school, and audaciously neglectful of his Zoloft, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) commits himself to a psych ward after tepid fantasies of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge start warming.
Twenty years after Heathers had its anarchic way with tin-eared adult solutions to teen problems, the specter of suicide still haunts student life (and attendant news-cycle opportunism), with the recent Tyler Clementi tragedy serving as a sad reminder. But while Heathers dove into truly dark corners of the adolescent psyche, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck work overtime to keep cuddly Craig safe from self-harm.
Despite his privileged race, class, and access to superlative specialized public education, Craig is posited as a universalized figure, stressed out in a banal “We all hate homework” tenor, with suicidal tendencies hazy to the point of insincere. We’re never granted real-time access to his school life, never shown incidents that might have set him off. Like most people, he gives the idea of suicide some thought, but that’s about it. Through voiceover, he describes the grim predicaments that send some people over the edge, before assuring that “my problems are less dramatic than that.” For Craig, suicide is hyperbole. “I just need you to help me,” he pleads to the E.R. physician, blinking big coal eyes like a baby Keanu. And away we go.
With this Young Adult riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Boden and Fleck at first glance seem far afield from the sociorealism of their previous features, Half Nelson and Sugar. Much as there was to admire about those films—particularly Andrij Parekh’s searching cinematography and several strong, naturalistic performances—there was also a nagging self-seriousness, laundry-list liberalism (on race, class, drugs, immigration, etc.), an anthropological (and thus dimly exploitative) distance from characters, and a willingness to cede story to good intentions. Rather than a humorous departure from such proclivities, It’s Kind of a Funny Story doubles down, uniting broad comedy with leaden sloganeering for a super-sincere, tonally awry amusement tour of post-9/11 despair.
Besides Craig, who at one point attributes his depression to war, the failing economy, and environmental uncertainty, we meet an eclectic community of colorful New York characters mentally challenged by modern living: a woman gone paranoid because of the Patriot Act; an acid-fried Hasid with sensitive hearing; a Tourettic schizophrenic whose random shout-outs play as punchline prophesy; a bed-bound Egyptian who offers cryptic, Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom; and our hero’s in-house father figure, Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, taking his first step toward Robin Williams–paved, sad-clown legitimacy), who’s caught in a cycle of unemployment, poverty, and rage. “What I would do to be you for a day,” he tells Craig, but instead of a note of resentment or even a soft critique of entitlement, it’s meant as affirmation. It really is great to be Craig, whose election to the nuthouse does wonders for his ego and reputation. In five short days, he learns that he’s a master illustrator, a natural singer (his performance of “Under Pressure” devolves into a risible lip-synched fantasy sequence featuring all the crazies decked out in glam wear), and drawn to traveling, volunteering, and saving the world.
When classmates learn why Craig’s not in school, he becomes a small sensation in absentia, recalling Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s wave of “Save Ferris” hysteria. But rather than mock, the movie grants him his newfound notoriety—much like it lets his rocker cutter crush, Noelle (Emma Roberts), sport peacock-chic cheek scars like Adam Ant Apache streaks. As the young lovers scamper down hospital halls and embrace on the roof with the skyline—and Broken Social Scene’s brightly reassuring score—as accompaniment, it’s clear their joy doesn’t just come from realizing that life is precious, but also that they lead precious lives. “I used to think art was just bourgeois decadence,” a wiser Craig says in the end, which is funny, because that’s kind of what this film is.