Its a Kind of Funny Story
This wouldn’t be nearly as awkward if you’d just sit with me.

Theatrical Release Date: 10/08/2010
Directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Zoë Kravitz , Viola Davis, Matthew Maher, Adrian Martinez, Daniel London, Bernard White, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan

Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck shot out of the cinematic starting gate with “Half Nelson“, announcing their presence with a remarkably powerful tale of being lost and finding a way to redeem one’s self. Their follow-up, “Sugar”, continued to earn the pair praise and so it comes as no surprise that there are certain expectations around their latest film, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”.

The title is probably meant to be ironic, as the story concerns a 16 year-old (Keir Gilchrist) whose suicidal thoughts drive him to voluntarily check into a psychiatric ward. After his initial introduction to other patients with a variety of mental issues (Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Matthew Maher, Bernard White, Daniel London), Gilchrist’s character rethinks his decision but the mandatory evaluation period for admitted patients keeps him there, as his doctor (Viola Davis), the patients, and hospital staff (including a Jeremy Davies sighting) help him come to grips with what prompted his depression in the first place.

I say that the title is probably meant to be ironic because rather than becoming a serious and thought-provoking drama, the tone is light and almost whimsical. Boden and Fleck choose to avoid deeper psychological pitfalls at every turn. Two problems arise as a result; A far too convenient and Mary Poppins-esque resolution structure, and the inability to fully invest in the characters. I’m all for getting into the psyche of emotionally fragile characters (e.g. My unabashed adulation of Susanne Bier films). I wanted to delve into the problems lying within Galifianakis, who’s struggling to be better for his young daughter; but they never actually get into why he’s in the psychiatric ward in the first place. I wanted to invest in Roberts’ problems, as manifested in her self-inflicted cutting; but again, we never explore these issues.

Instead, we have Kilchrist figuring out that his issues are being stressed, overwhelmed and struggling with hormones … which is like every other teenager … in the world … ever. And as he begins to understand that his problems are manageable with the right coping skills, he basically becomes the savior of the ward – helping his roommate reengage with the world, being a shoulder for Galifianakis to lean on, showing Roberts that she’s capable of being loved. It’s all so sweet and heartwarming, which is fine and all, but any hope of having some significant discussion about mental illness is lost. My allergy to books has kept me from reading the novel this is based on but if anyone has read it, I’d love to know if the author addressed the psychological issues because that’s exactly what the directors have cut out.

On the bright side, in keeping with the upbeat mood of the film, Boden and Fleck effectively utilize animation and fantasy sequences to show us what Gilchrist is thinking. These scenes work well to break up the rather contrived freeze-frame/trite narration elements that are also used to convey Gilchrist’s thoughts to the audience. Fans of shows like “Glee” will especially love the manner in which the patients perform David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure”, which was superbly costumed and kept the energy of the film at a high level (though I’m torn on whether I appreciate the lip-syncing even though it’s asking a lot for actors without musical backgrounds to cover such an iconic song).

Sadly, although I had high hopes that the film’s comedic touches would be the counter-balance to its dramatic underpinnings, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” should just be retitled “It’s Kind of an Easy Resolution” and I can only give it a 3 out of 5. Oddly enough, if you’re just looking for some light diversion, I’d recommend this film about a teen who thinks he’s suicidal. I enjoyed watching it unfold but felt like it was just an appetizer for some more substantial fare to come later.