A troubled teen takes on the psych ward

Zach Galifianakis (left) and Keir Gilchrist star in a story of two wounded people who form a bond.
Zach Galifianakis (left) and Keir Gilchrist star in a story of two wounded people who form a bond.
Posted: October 08, 2010

The connection between adolescent angst and the tough terrain of mental illness is more than clinical - it's artistic. In literature, theater, and film, teenagers can be found grappling with depression, addiction, eating disorders, suicidal urges.

And for all the pain depicted (the gnashing of teeth, the slashing of wrists), there's something romantic, too, about the idea of being taken out of school and home and put in a clean white room. There are attendants with pills, a sloping lawn with a garden, perhaps, and poems to read or Nick Drake to bob your melancholy head to.

Of course, the reality of a psych ward is something else.

And in It's Kind of a Funny Story, a smart but suicidal 16-year-old comes up against the real world of a New York City mental facility - well, kind of, like the title says.

A gentle and not altogether successful adaptation of Ned Vizzini's popular young-adult novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story hails from the filmmaking duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, ace indie neorealists (Half Nelson, Sugar) trying their hand at something decidedly more commercial. The writing/directing team have cited John Hughes and his high school oeuvre as inspiration and influence - Ferris Bueller, Interrupted. There's even a musical fantasy number here, and zippy little cartoon sequences in which the busy "brain maps" drawn by our young hero, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), turn animated, take flight, and get too cute for their own good.

So Craig, contemplating a swan dive off the Brooklyn Bridge, checks himself into a hospital one dark Sunday eve. And because there's construction in the juvenile wing, he finds himself on the floor with the grown-up mental patients: the catatonic, the schizophrenic, and the Galifianakis - as in Zach. The Hangover whackjob and stand-up comedian turns the volume down several notches to play Bobby, a fragile soul suffering from bouts of despair and a general inability to cope with the business of living.

But Bobby has aced things inside 3 North, donning scrubs for covert off-floor missions, and he and Craig form a friendship - two wounded dudes talking about "bird-dogging chicks" and the daunting responsibilities of fatherhood.

There's a girl, too: Noelle (Emma Roberts), wary and introverted, with a seriously self-destructive side. Over the five days Craig spends in the ward, he and Noelle go through their cuckoo's-nest courtship.

Gilchrist, low-key and watchful, brings considerable conviction to his role; his Craig is sympathetically drawn. Galifianakis gives his nutcase real dignity, Roberts is wispy and sweet, and Viola Davis delivers gravitas in her few minutes as the ward's head administrator. However, the casting of Lauren Graham as Craig's (understandably worried) mom, and Jeremy Davies as a kooky, kooky medic, is egregiously predictable.

And if there's a psych ward for motion pictures, It's Kind of a Funny Story should check itself in. Boden and Fleck's film suffers from bipolar disorder: manic and silly one minute, moody and muted the next.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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