“Funny” and Sad in All the Right Ways
By Amy Nicholson
Ever since the late great John Hughes stopped cranking out classic high-school films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink at the end of the 1980s, finding a teen movie with any true psychological depth has been nearly impossible. But every once in awhile a filmmaker surprises audiences with a genuinely heartfelt effort. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a happy addition to that list.
Starring Keir Gilchrist (Showtime’s United States of Tara) as its unlikely central character, a depressed teenage boy named Craig, Funny follows the bittersweet dramedy that unfolds when Craig tries to check himself into the teen ward of a Brooklyn mental health clinic, but accidentally winds up being placed on a five-day psychiatric lockdown in the facility’s adult wing.
Craig’s problem is a broadly defined depression, a sense of melancholy toward the world around him that contradicts the seeming cheeriness of his supportive parents. Yet the mind is an inscrutable thing, and he feels the need to break out of an indefinable rut, so Craig makes the most of it even as he’s surrounded by longtime patients who have been locked away from the world for far longer than he can even imagine.
Along the way, Craig finds hope in two relationships: the friendship he finds with a dad in his late 30s named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), and a tentative romance with a beautifully sad girl named Noelle (Emma Roberts). As they peel away the painful truths underlying their stays, Bobby must learn to lighten up a little, resulting in an affecting series of funny-sad life transformations that feel very real.
Funny finds plenty of offbeat humor in its setting and in the oddness of its supporting cast of patient characters. Yet it never hammers home its quest for laughs and never feels exploitive of the mentally ill, which is a big step up for most Hollywood movies.
Its trio of lead performances—Gilchrist, Galifianakis and Roberts—also keep the tightrope of mood and propriety in place by finding just the right amount of sadness beneath their characters’ willingness to smile through the pain. Gilchrist is particularly brilliant casting. His distinctly non-model looks make him a Hollywood rarity: an instantly identifiable teen whose awkwardness leaps off the screen from his first moment.
Roberts is just pretty enough to make a believable swoon-worthy girl without seeming unattainable, and she matches Gilchrist well in her ability to make a believable personality shift over the course of the film’s events. Yet it’s Galifianakis, in his first major role since The Hangover, who is both the film’s box-office hook and its shining star. As Bobby, he plays equally well both dry sarcasm and the heartbreaking sadness of a man who’s afraid to lose custody of his daughter.
Co-writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who have been building an impressive body of work with their prior indie films Sugar and Half Nelson, top themselves here by balancing extremely difficult tones with aplomb and evoking the spirit of Hughes’ best work throughout. The soundtrack by Scottish alternative band Broken Social Scene is a distinctive treat of its own, adding a propulsive joy to this tale of young spirits taking flight.
It’s particularly evocative of The Breakfast Club, not only in its mood but in the fact that it shows most teens are alright and not just the horndogs depicted everywhere from American Pie to Gossip Girl. Sex isn’t the main thing on these kids’ minds. Rather, they attempt to live a life with happiness and meaning. Credit goes to Ned Vizzini’s eponymous 2006 novel for that.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is both funny and sad in all the right places. Give it a shot.