"Silver Linings Playbook" has been a box-office hit, with an especially devoted local following, given its Philadelphia setting. The film recounts the story of two characters who struggle with mental illness. Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) suffers from bipolar disease. In his struggles to maintain health, he gets to know Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mental-health issues are not as clearly defined but still cause her serious obstacles in life.
Although not a film critic, I found the film for the most part well-written and compelling, with terrific performances. But I entered the theater wary, and I emerged concerned. Is its portrayal of mental illness accurate, positive, informative, misleading?
The first half of the film generally portrays the seriousness involved in a mental illness such as bipolar disease - though in doing so, the very limits of the film medium create a fine line between playing with stereotypes ("Those people are prone toward violent outbursts!") and a moving depiction of the real pain for those suffering and for family and friends. But the second half (slight spoiler here) devolves into a sweet rom-com, delightful to witness as two people dealing with real brokenness find love and healing.
On the one hand: "Silver Linings Playbook" makes the dangerously myopic insinuation that true love and dancing make everything all right - the severe crises of the earlier scenes give way to triumph against all odds. (There is a strong suggestion that Pat finally decides to take medication, which he earlier had been refusing; so is there some public-service message that things are better for folks with mental illness if they follow their medication regime? Neither character is shown suffering any of the numerous and often debilitating side effects that usually accompany psychiatric medications.)
On the other hand: Much of the mental-health community has embraced the Recovery Transformation model, which asserts people aren't defined by their illness, nor do they have to see their lives as a constant effort to "manage their disease." They can live with dignity, relationships and meaning. So one might applaud that the two main characters are able, even in their personal struggles, to set goals, achieve dreams, fall in love. Maybe it's a service to the audience that by the end of the movie, Pat and Tiffany are not just mental-health consumers, but two good people dealing with life's crap and life's gifts as best they can.
Folks who experience mental-health issues (and I count myself in that community, with a history of clinical depression) know all too well the long-standing social stigmas and myths that only contribute to the already-considerable struggle of health. Public understanding of mental illness is frequently skewed by film or television depictions of "psychotic killers" or other sorts of folks who are "crazy," "lunatics" or some other less-than-endearing moniker. All of which can contribute to societal fears of people with mental-health issues being dangerous or threatening. In turn, families often feel shame and try to keep hidden the "secret" about a family member. And quite related is the phenomenon of NIMBY ("not in my back yard") attitudes in opposition to potential residences for people with special needs.
Ironically, many Hollywood films, when trying to do more "serious" portrayals of disabilities, often succumb to the "triumph over adversity" model, in which we are drawn to the noble and heroic disabled people - to a degree that is often just as unrealistic and just as problematic in terms of public perceptions.
So while the moviegoing public falls in love with fictional Pat and Tiffany with all the charm of their struggles, will they then gladly welcome into their neighborhood a safe haven or transitional residence for people with mental illness? While we choke up in emotion at the ways disabled folks in the theaters triumph over their adversity, will we commit as a society to appropriate resources for mental-health treatment so that real-life sufferers of mental illness can in fact realize their full potential and contribute to the common good?
Will "Silver Linings Playbook" win big on Oscar night? More importantly, will it result in constructive public dialogue and deeper empathy? That might be the best kind of happy ending.
Will O'Brien works with Project HOME, a nationally recognized nonprofit in Philadelphia that develops solutions to homelessness and poverty.