Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movie Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story ***
Directed by:
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck.
Written By: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck based on the book by Ned Vizzini.
Starring: Keir Gilchrist (Craig), Zach Galifianakis (Bobby), Emma Roberts (Noelle), Lauren Graham (Lynn), Jim Gaffigan (George), Dana DeVestern (Alissa), Jared Goldstein (Ronny), Alan Aisenberg (Scuggs), Zoë Kravitz (Nia), Thomas Mann (Aaron), Jeremy Davies (Smitty), Viola Davis (Dr. Eden Minerva), Lou Myers (Jimmy), MacIntyre Dixon (Roger), Bernard White (Muqtada), Novella Nelson (The Professor), Matthew Maher (Humble).

When you’re a teenager everything seems so damned important. You get pressure from your parents and teachers to do well in school, so you can get into a good college and get a good job when you graduate. You feel pressure from your friends to fit in and be cool. You feel pressure from yourself to try and make all of these people happy, and yourself, but when the girl you like is dating your best friend, things seem hopeless. Utterly, completely hopeless. It isn’t of course, and things will get better if you just hang in there for a few years – but try explaining that to a 16 year old.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story gets that. It understands, and remembers, what it is like to be a teenager when it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. A lot of critics have disliked the movie so far, complaining that the main character is a spoiled, whiny brat of a teenager. And they’re right – he is. But that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t good – or even that it isn’t true. Many kids are spoiled and whiny, thinking the world revolves around them. It’s standard operating procedure in the life of a teenager.

Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a 15 year old living in New York. He goes to the best school in the city – one whose purpose is to mold the young minds of tomorrow into becoming stock brokers and CEOs. The workload is intense, and they are expected to go to school year round to keep up. He looks around at the other students, his friends, and it seems like everything comes so easily to him, but is so hard for him. Of course, like him, they are putting on an act, and are going through the same thing – but teenagers often don’t think like that. They think that they are the only ones.

When the movie opens, Craig is having another one of his bouts of suicidal depression, and ends up at the ER telling them he is going to kill himself. They check him into the adult psychiatric ward, because the teen one is under renovations, for a five day observational period. It doesn’t take Craig long to realize that compared to some of the other patients, he has it fairly good. He has a loving family and some decent friends. Many others don’t have that, and on top of it, have more serious mental health problems. His relationship with two of the patients – Bobby (Zach Galifiankis) a 30 something year old who comes in after his yearly suicide attempt, and another teenager Noelle (Emma Roberts) who is there because she cuts herself – that makes Craig see that his life really is worth living.

The film is at times, a bit of a mess. Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) have adapted Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel into a movie that is perceptive about mental health, but also goes a little too far at times to make this into a feel good story of a kid overcoming his problems. It all seems a little too pat, too predictable, too upbeat. This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest territory, but wrapped up into a happier package.

But the performances save the movie for the most part. Gilchrist nails his performance as the kid who just feels too much pressure. He has a hard time explaining to everyone what he feels and why, and grows frustrated. But he remains a believable character throughout. Emma Roberts has less time to develop Noelle, but she does a fine job as well – and perhaps it’s best that they never explain her actions, as it allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. Best of all is Galafianakis who is truly excellent as Bobby. He puts on an act of being the wise guy, the funny guy, the guy with all the answers, when in reality he has none. He tries so hard, and fails so often, that he has pretty much given up. It is interesting to see Galafianakis in this role, because his character isn’t all that far off his comic persona as seen in The Hangover – but he has a little more awareness of his problems and his failings. This is a great performance, and he makes Bobby into the single most interesting character in the movie.

The film isn’t as good as Boden and Fleck’s previous films. Both Half Nelson and Sugar moved with confidence, knew its characters from the inside and out and presented us with them without judgment, but with eyes wide open. Here, they try a little too hard to be accessible – and the flights of fancy the film goes on occasionally are the least successful moments in the film. The work better when they are more subdued.

But overall, I think It’s Kind of a Funny Story works well. How well may just depend on how well you remember your teenage years – and as such how much sympathy you can muster for Craig. This is a movie that I see smart teenagers liking a whole lot more than adults.

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