I’ve been developing a list of movies that deal with mental health realities so you’re probably going to be seeing more of these little reviews. Released the same year as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Silver Linings Playbook was a bit more of an ambiguous sell for me. Bradley Cooper plays a refreshingly honest and sort of hapless guy trying to put his life back together after a stay at a psych ward (not shown but alluded to), which he apparently landed in because of a single incident involving an understandably distressing event.
He’s living with his parents until he can get his feet under him again and the dysfunction in his family – and even his doctors, while not the focus of the film, is thick. This alone is more than sufficient commentary on the state of the mental health field today, really: identified patients being demonized, misunderstood, judged as dangerous and not receiving enough or appropriate care; real emotions being labeled as illness because they’re inconvenient and uncomfortable for self or others; the person suffering the most acutely being seen as the problem, or at least the one with the problem while the vortex of dysfunction all around them remains unaddressed.
But. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a disorienting mix of stereotypical and confusing, which serves more to distract than enhance. Her chaotic and unpredictable responses to Cooper’s character strike me as more entrenching of “mental patient” tropes that end up hurting already hurt and vulnerable people. It’s really unclear what her motive is, which isn’t necessarily a problem but it, for me, detracted from my ability or desire to empathize with her. I think the biggest issue with her character is that it sort of feels like she’s acting like a teenager (which is fine for teenagers to do) but that that is what they are implying is a mental illness. Her diagnosis is never clear, which is fine because people are people, not names voted into existence by wealthy, mostly white people (mostly men) with deep ties to Big Pharma and Cooper’s character’s diagnosis seems to me to be incongruous even if you assume such DSM diktats are valid. But the problem here is that mental “illness” is not “merely” emotional immaturity. This is not the place for me to comment much more on that; suffice to say that this has been one of the most damaging stereotypes that still persists among the general public.
Finally, ‘healing’ does not come from a dance competition, and especially not one which was part of a risky and objectifying bet borne out of the cesspool of malfunction that is Cooper’s character’s family and that his psychiatrist was privy to and even part of. The Perks of Being a Wallflower managed to provide watchers real-life resolution that is okay with remaining tension; Silver Linings Playbook tied up too many things far too neatly and quickly to do justice to the mental suffering and hardship it is trying to deal with as a film subject. It is difficult to be realistic, respectful and non-sensational about mental-heath realities, particularly in today’s culture. But it is reasonable to expect those who try to engage this complex web of issues to be a bit more careful than to make a joke out of a shrink participating in damaging his patient by going with the dysfunctional flow of his family (which itself is distractingly improbably to begin with) or to insinuate that recovery, wholeness, healing are as easy to find as practicing for and performing in an adjudicated show.