“In thinking about depressing movies, many people don’t realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.”–Roger Ebert
Movies in a Minor Key
In the year 2000 I experienced the blahs when it came to the movies. I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing. Were the comedies not funny enough? The action films not active enough? Then I saw The House of Mirth, a period piece about Lily Bart, an attractive New York socialite who starts drawing the wrong kind of attention. Her social standing takes a downward spiral as a result.
I came away from that movie feeling refreshed. It wasn’t that I disliked the character and felt that she got what she deserved. It was that I’d seen a film acknowledge that sometimes despite our best efforts things just don’t go our way. Instead of envying the protagonist’s triumph against all odds or wishing my life could be like hers, I felt compassion for Lily’s misfortune and gratitude that my day-to-day problems seemed more manageable by comparison.
Movies That Get Depression Right
While escapist action and comedies can lift our mood when we’re having a bad day, when those days start to string together and there’s no end in sight, it’s surprisingly reassuring to spend time with others who have been there. At the very least, we feel less alone.
My favorite episodes of John Moe’s The Hilarious World of Depression feature listener recommendations of songs, books, and now movies that get depression right. The 45-minute episode brought back a flood of fond movie memories for me, and you can listen to it here. But, if you only have ten minutes to choose your evening’s entertainment. Here goes.
The pitch-black comedy-drama Melancholia starts with Earth getting obliterated by a slow-motion collision with the title planet, then flashes back to the fairy tale wedding reception and sibling squabbles that preceded our collective demise. “Even though the planet is about to be completely destroyed, Justine’s sister Claire is still telling her that she has to eat, and she has to take a bath, and things like that, and that’s ridiculous.”
In the ensemble comedy Bridesmaids, Annie’s life is falling apart. But when she finds out her lifetime best friend Lillian has gotten engaged, she’s determined to do whatever it takes to be the perfect maid of honor. “Annie has lost her bakery, her income, and her self esteem. Seeing the success of her best friend’s wedding and her new friend, the replacement friend, shows her another way she’s losing at life.”
The Writing Life
World’s Greatest Dad, Lance Clayton, dreamed of being a rich and famous writer but has only managed to make it as a high school poetry teacher. His only son Kyle is an insufferable jackass whose death in a freak accident offers him the greatest opportunity of his life. “He is not valued by anyone in his life around him, from his students to the girlfriend who seems to be drifting away, to his son. And then he finally gets recognition, and it’s even lonelier, even more isolating than it was before.” A dark comedy with a truly twisted premise.
The very funny odd couple road picture Sideways tags along with two old friends on a pre-wedding tour of wine country. Jack is a has-been actor and groom to be. His best man Miles is a never-was writer. “Miles suffers from nagging doubts and circular thoughts that keep him from really being present in the moment, anger with himself, and disgust mixed with envy toward Jack. He feels that maybe things would be so much easier if he could live a life like Jack where he just doesn’t care.”
The Hours tells the story of three women from different times and places linked by their yearnings, fears, and search for more potent, meaningful lives. “It’s an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of being in such acute all-encompassing pain that the only thing you think can end that pain is death.”
Horse Girl is Sarah, a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee whose strangely surreal dreams challenge her ability to distinguish her visions from reality. “Alison Brie nails the secretive disorientation of psychotic depression perfectly.”
Girl, Interrupted is Susanna Kaysen’s account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the 1960s. “The girls often feel like no one gets them, and even though they’re fighting with each other, they know that the only real people who understand what they’re going through are their fellow patients.”
The title character in Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a loving mom compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. “It’s really hard to find movies that show people with depression who still have to get through each day like everything is fine. It isn’t all crying in a corner and fifteen minutes later everything is fixed.”
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Sam Bell is living on the far side of the Moon completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Earth’s primary source of energy, Helium-3. It is a lonely job, and though his time on the moon is almost over, his physical and mental health are deteriorating. “At one point he drives away from the moon base and you see and hear him from a distance just break down and weep at his total alienation from the world and the apparent impossibility of escape from that prison of his deceptive mind.”
Aniara, one of the many spaceships transporting Earth’s fleeing population to their new home–planet Mars–collides with space junk and is thrown off her course. “One of the most fascinating and insightful explorations of hopelessness and despair that I’ve ever seen.”
Lost in Translation in Tokyo, and suffering from insomnia, Bob, a middle-aged American actor cashing in on his fame by making TV commercials for the Japanese market, and Charlotte, a neglected young American wife, cross paths one night in a luxury hotel bar and form an unusual friendship. “The main characters are functional depressives who arrive at similar emotional states from different directions and find common ground.”
Anomalisa is the stop-motion animation tale of Michael Stone, an author of customer service books, to whom everyone looks and sounds the same. One night, while on a routine business trip, he meets Lisa, a stranger with a unique voice. “It’s such a good representation of someone feeling numb to the world while also being a jerk.”
Inside Out is how adolescent Riley feels her life has been turned when her father takes a job in San Francisco and she’s uprooted from her Midwestern world. Pixar animation brings to life the emotions Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness, who live in the control center of Riley’s mind. It’s “The movie that depicts depression the best because the character sadness fits it.”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Joel is stunned to discover that his girlfriend Clementine has had her memories of their tumultuous relationship erased and seeks to do the same. “It spoke to the part of me that just doesn’t want to feel anymore, the desire to erase what’s in my brain and replace it with something that allows me to just be a normal happy person.”
Groundhog Day never ends for TV weatherman Phil Connors who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities, gets caught in a giant blizzard that he failed to predict, and finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. “It is another day like many before and many after that you wake up into and feel the same daunting inadequacies.”
Lord of the Rings – Return of the King reveals the ultimate fate of Middle Earth in the final film of Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. “The ring has such a powerful hold on Frodo, as did my depression, that he struggles with parting from it. But its release, of course, is the only way to save Frodo’s world.”
The Babadook is the sinister titular figure of a disturbing pop-up storybook that shows up on Amelia’s doorstep six years after the violent death of her husband. Her efforts to get rid of the nasty book prove every bit as challenging as the out of control behavior of her six-year-old son. “It’s a very creepy movie, but it is equally creepy about the possible supernatural explanations and maybe the psychological ones.”
Finding Strength in Numbers
Stand by Me, based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” is the semi-autobiographical story of an overnight hike by four adolescent Oregon boys who seek the body of a boy who had been struck by a train. “The kids in that movie were all processing some kind of trauma in ways that any middle school kid would immediately recognize.”
The Station Agent is a film about three people with nothing in common, except their shared solitude, until chance brings their lives together. “I just love how it speaks to the reality, without exaggerating it or making it larger than life, that we can be in pain with other people but still not be on the same page of pain.”