Mental illness is one of my hot-ticket items, mainly because I have bipolar disorder. It’s an under-discussed topic, and frequently spoken of negatively when it is discussed, contributing to negative stigmas that hurt those of us living with real mental disorders. These ten films resonated with me for their accuracy, sympathetic view of the conditions, and, of course, their quality as films.
This list is limited to psychiatric disorders, not neurological ones (sorry, Rain Man). I’m also not talking about films that critique the mental health system in general (sorry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). That said, here are my top ten films about mental illness.
10. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
This is a quirky little film about a lesser-known mental illness: schizoid personality disorder, which is characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, detachment and apathy. We see this manifest in Lars, a young man living in a small town with an aversion to any social attachment or interaction. He holds down a regular job, but his family (whom he’s living with) is worried about him. And when Lars brings home a girlfriend, who is actually a high-quality sex doll whom he absolutely believes is real, his family and community must figure out how to support him.
Schizoid personality disorder is a condition that could easily be vilified or shown in a negative light. What I loved about Lars and the Real Girl is how sympathetic it is toward the main character Lars. The film itself is nonjudgmental, even as Lars does some pretty weird stuff, and the whole small town rallies around Lars to support him in this odd time in his life. This film is a great depiction not only of schizoid, but also of how families and communities should treat mental illness, and that was refreshing to see.
9. Amelie (2001)
Amelie was a huge film for me in college, but I never really considered it was about mental illness because the film makes no effort to address mental illness directly. Instead, it gives us a young woman with severe social anxiety and makes us root for her rather than demand that she be fixed. Somehow, this painfully anxious young woman is relatable to a much larger audience because it shows us not how she suffers but how she cares, and how she eventually finds happiness.
As someone with mental illness, I related to this. Many films about mental illness try to fix all of the problems of mentally ill characters in the films, but these problems never really go away—we just learn to deal with them better. The beauty of Amelie is that it doesn’t try to fix Amelie; it just allows her to be happy with her faults. In fact, it allows her to be a hero with her faults—something few other movies about mental illness try to do. This was something I really enjoyed seeing, and I found it empowering as well.
8. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine wasn’t explicitly about mental illness, but it featured one prominent character, Frank Ginsberg, who is dealing with severe depression and recovering from a failed suicide attempt. With Frank being in that situation, he can’t hide his faults, which is exactly what the rest of his family is doing thanks to the family’s overbearing father (Frank’s brother-in-law), Richard Hoover. Richard’s obsession with success puts him at odds with Frank, and causes anxiety when the rest of the family can’t live up to impossible expectations.
This is a rare film in which mental illness provides the voice of reason. Frank’s transparency with his flaws is what eventually allows the rest of the family, including Richard, to accept their own flaws as well as each other’s flaws. I shudder to think what would have happened in the climax of the film had Frank not been along for the journey and affected the characters as he did.
7. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
This biopic tells the story of John Nash, a professor at Princeton University, as he discovers he has schizophrenia and deals with its ill effects. It’s a film that took schizophrenia and changed it from something scary and unknown to something familiar and sympathetic, and that’s no small feat. Although the film’s depiction of medical treatment of mental illness had some issues, the depiction of the disorder itself and what it meant for the main character was spot-on.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This film is about two characters with mental illness: Joel, who has depression, and Clementine, who most likely has borderline personality disorder, and it does a great job or showing how those conditions affect the characters as well as the relationship between them. It pulls no punches in showing the challenges the relationship has, not even in the end, but it also doesn’t paint them as villains or hopeless victims, allowing the two characters to be flawed but functional and seek out some semblance of a healthy relationship even as they seek to leave behind the unhealthy parts.
As someone with a major mental illness who has dated people with mental illness, this one hit me hard. The abstract nature of the film made the point stronger, reminding me that even the imperfect relationships I chastise myself for have good in them and are worth fighting for. It was also nice to see a relationship on screen that looks like so many of the relationships I’ve had. This is a great film because it didn’t water down any part of its subject matter, instead giving a hard look at the challenges of dating with mental illness, as well as the rewards.
5. Black Swan (2010)
The mind-trip of a movie shows us life through the main character Nina’s eyes as she descends into psychosis stemming from stress, emotional abuse, and possibly some other things as well. It captures, perhaps better than any other film, the terror of not knowing what’s real and not knowing what’s wrong with you. Nina has no diagnosis, and what’s really happening to her is only hinted at (hint: her mom is more dangerous than you think), and she, along with the audience, have to deal with the things her brain does to cope with this trauma.
This is a film that, on its surface, isn’t really about mental illness, but digging deeper, mental illness provides a much-needed explanation as well as some impressive depth to the main character. It shows us the madness that often leads those of us with mental illness to seek help and get a diagnosis, although it’s unclear whether or not Nina will get that opportunity. Another fine point here is that people with mental illness are significantly more likely to be victims of violence and abuse, and we see Nina abused on multiple fronts. This film is tense and at times heartbreaking, but it really captures the feel of dealing with a chronically abnormal brain.
4. Donnie Darko (2001)
Much like Black Swan, Donnie Darko isn’t just a film about mental illness; it’s a film that captures what it’s like to live with mental illness. Protagonist Donnie Darko has schizophrenia, but can’t tell which of his delusions are real and which are fake, leading to a famously confusing plot that leaves a lot of threads unresolved. On first viewing, I was pretty angry that so many parts of this film didn’t make sense; on my second and third viewings, I came to see that this confusion is intentional, to show the viewer how those with schizophrenia are forced to view the world at times.
This film captures not only the confusion of trying to cope with a mental disorder, but also the more personal struggle of trying to find yourself while growing up with undiagnosed (or at least untreated) mental illness. I didn’t receive my diagnosis or any treatment until my senior year of college, at age 21, so I related to a lot of what Donnie was going through in this film. When viewed in this way, there are a lot of little details hidden in the film that make this a truly authentic look at growing up with mental illness.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Post-traumatic stress disorder was a huge deal in the 70s as traumatized veterans were returning from Vietnam, although it wasn’t an official diagnosis until 1980. With this being a new discovery and very widespread problem, there were many references to it in the films of the 70s. None of these were more accurate, or alarming, than Taxi Driver. We see, in crystal-clear detail, the struggle between right and wrong, the inability to connect with others, and the fear that you will suddenly be thrust back into danger, and those take a heavy toll on the psyche of Travis Bickle.
The main conflict in this film isn’t what happens to Travis; it’s what kind of person he will end up being. We see him waver between good and bad and really struggle with each option, and it’s really unclear until the end where his broken psyche will lead him. But the most memorable part of the film was the loneliness we see that threatens to overwhelm Travis. He really tries to connect with others, but he just consistently fails to do that. This is one of the loneliest films on my list, and that tells a powerful story of how PTSD affects people.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
This is a film about depression and PTSD, but it’s also a film about growing up in the 90s, and it did both of those really well. Most teen films will try to cast as wide a net as possible to appeal to wide audiences, but this film gets very specific, and as such, ended up hooking me and many others like me. Charlie’s struggle to connect socially while dealing with crippling depression hit home for me in a way that few other movies do. It reminded me so much of my adolescent years, in a way that only someone who has been through it can identify.
This film doesn’t settle for simple problems or simple answers. Charlie needs more than a friendly chat, and ends up needing much more help than his already far-reaching support network can provide for him. The understated fragility of his mental state was very relatable, and it was refreshing to see a film that tackled mental illness as it frequently is, not as would best relate to a general audience.
1. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This one is the most personal for me. It depicts a man with bipolar disorder developing a relationship with a woman with borderline personality disorder. Along the way, both of them must learn to accept their own faults and deal with them. I myself have bipolar disorder and saw a lot of very familiar behavior in Pat. The depiction of both conditions is really accurate, and the relationship that develops between the two lead characters also mirrors a lot of what I’ve seen in my relationships.
It’s like when Crazy Rich Asians finally gave Asian characters a chance in the spotlight—this film gave me a chance to see someone like me in a starring role, and that was huge for me. The fact that this is also a film about accepting your condition, learning to cope with it, and learning how to interact with your family in light of it just made this better. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a good depiction of a relationship between two people with mental illness, but Silver Linings Playbook remains my favorite for its relatable details and it will always hold a place in my heart.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Antisocial Personality Disorder, American Beauty (1999) – Depression, Fight Club (1999) – Disassociative Identity Disorder
If you liked this, you’ll probably also like my essay on mental illness in the movies. You might also be a fan of Peculiar Picture Show, my podcast on movies and mental health.