"Sometimes I wish I had an easy answer for why I'm depressed," says Craig, the 16-year-old protagonist of It's Kind of a Funny Story. The movie, which is indeed kind of a funny story and is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Ned Vizzini, doesn't provide an easy answer for what caused Craig's depression. It comes dangerously close to providing an easy cure for it, but ultimately refrains from oversimplifying too much. You might call it a junior version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- if you're glib and superficial, that is. Which I am.
Craig, played by Keir Gilchrist (from Showtime's The United States of Tara), is a stressed-out Manhattanite who's been pressured since day one to get the best grades so he can get into the best schools so he can have the best career. His best friend, Aaron (Thomas Mann), is dating their best girl friend, Nia (Zoe Kravitz), with whom Craig is madly in love. Craig often doesn't want to get out of bed, preferring to sleep and to dream of suicide, which he always chickens out on because he feels bad for his family. (Craig's mom and dad are played by Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, both oozing sincere parental concern.) He has seen a shrink and has been on and off Zoloft. One Sunday morning it all gets to be too much and he walks into a hospital emergency room.
"I want to kill myself," he says.
"Fill this out," says a nurse, shoving a form at him.
The rest of this whimsical and poignant coming-of-age comedy is set in the psychiatric ward. The wing for teenagers is being renovated (conveniently), so Craig and a girl his age, Noelle (Emma Roberts), are housed with the adults. Many of them, Craig is alarmed to note, are ... you know ... crazy. There are schizophrenics wandering the halls muttering to themselves, people who won't leave their rooms, guys who complain about non-existent noises, and Zach Galifianakis. This last one, a semi-functional depressive named Bobby who is quick with a deadpan non sequitur or a bit of crazy-person philosophy, becomes Craig's mentor and guardian. He seems to be a composite of several characters from the book -- which isn't surprising, given that he comes across, most of all, like Zach Galifianakis.
Adapted and directed by the wonder duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), the film addresses its serious issues with sensitivity and humor, refusing to become bogged down in somberness. Vizzini's book reflects his own experiences and employs the kind of dark comedy that only a person who has dealt with the matter at hand can get away with. Boden and Fleck, realizing they have a highly creative main character on their hands, tell Craig's story in a fitting manner, with fantasy sequences, animation, and a musical number. I think the filmmakers have seen enough self-consciously quirky independent movies to know when it's too much, and they generally avoid going overboard with the eccentricity.
The story takes some disappointingly unlikely turns in the third act, with events so implausible I honestly thought we were watching one of Craig's fantasy sequences. It's too bad, since otherwise the film is resonant and relatable, with a standout performance by 17-year-old Gilchrist and a nice supporting turn by Emma Roberts. Bobby wonders why Craig is depressed at all: "You're cool, you're smart, you're talented, you have a family that loves you." Bobby knows it's not that simple -- clinical depression can affect people who have no reason to be sad -- but his words are a heartening reminder to Craig to look for the good in life. A week in the psychiatric ward can provide perspective, even if it can't fix everything. It's a happy message for a funny and warm film.
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Eric D. Snider (website) eats Zoloft like Pez candy.