When Hollywood Tackles Mental Illness: The Best Psychological Movies
A number of films attempt to capture mental illness and mental differences, but not necessarily effectively.
Honestly, it’s a hard topic to tackle as there are so many stereotypes of mental illness, and films can come off as degrading to people who suffer and struggle.
M. Knight Shyamalan attempted to address Dissociative Identity Disorder in the film Split and missed terribly. The film Adam, a love story about a man who is on the Autism spectrum, similarly failed. There are plenty of times when Hollywood flops on the accuracy depicting mental health, but occasionally, a director nails it.
I had the chance to watch Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian Horror film from 2014. Prior to watching, I was not aware of the mental health angle which includes a legitimate syndrome similar to Schizophrenia called Capgras Delusion.
Goodnight Mommy opens with a mother returning home to her identical twins after undergoing cosmetic plastic surgery. Her face is bandaged and only her mouth and eyes are visible. The image of her is scary right from the start and sets the tone for a legitimate horror film.
Her twin sons, named Elias and Lukas, are creepy and remind me of the twins from The Shining. Their performance is epic as they appear supremely stoic and intent on their focus upon proving their mother is “false.” The twins feel their mother has changed and begin to suspect she is not actually their mother, but an imposter.
Oddly, the mother only pays attention to Elias and ignores Lukas, a further indication that she may not actually be their true mother.
The mother’s behavior is different from her former self as viewed by the twins. She becomes abusive to Elias and imposes strict rules. Many other indicators suggest their “mommy,” is not their “mommy.” The twins escalate their interrogation of the mother insisting she admits she is not their actual mom. This involves subduing her, taping her mouth shut, and ultimately gluing her to the floor.
Each escalation of the 9-year-old twins horrific behaviors toward their mother is unnerving.
The end result of their torture is the mother letting Elias know that his twin was actually killed in an accident. He refuses to believe her, threatens one final time, and burns himself and the mother to death. Elias firmly believed his mother was not his actual mother.
Turns out, this is a thing. I’ve never run into this as a psychologist, but the disorder depicted in Goodnight Mommy is called Capgras Delusion.
Capgras Delusion is a disorder in which a person believes a friend or close relationship has been replaced by an identical person, but this person is an impostor. This delusion is closely connected to Schizophrenia and dementia and can also be induced after a significant stressor, such as is the case in this film, the death of your twin.
As far as I can tell, Goodnight Mommy captures the horror of this delusion through the eyes of a child. I highly recommend it. And while we are on the subject, here are 10 of my favorite movies which did a relatively good job depicting mental illness or mental differences:
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first films and plays an individual struggling with a developmental disorder. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape also captures the struggles of obesity and the pressures a grown child faces when caring for his family.
As Good As It Gets
In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays an over the top example of a semi-functioning Obsessive Compulsive author. Specifically, Nicholson’s depiction of germaphobia is spot on and the film accurately relays the true pain of living with intense OCD.
In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman portrays the Autistic older brother of Tom Cruise. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayed his character, Raymond, as an Autistic Savant Raymond. The problem with this film is that if made most people believe all autistic people are savants. But they are not.
Finding Nemo is a classic film rarely discussed in terms of mental illness. We see Dory suffering the loss of long-term memory, and we also see a father struggling with helicopter parenting due to the death of his wife and ensuing PTSD. Pixar has a history of tackling mental health as seen in Up and Inside Out.
I will be honest here. I will not watch Still Alice as this is my greatest fear. But I have interviewed people who have seen it. The basic story is a professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The film depicts Stephen King’s greatest fear, which is losing who you are. The gradual sad loss is too much for me to bear but I’ve heard it is spot on.
While I obviously can’t know what it’s like to be schizophrenic, the visual and auditory hallucinations depicted in Donnie Darko, including paranoia, seem to be perfect. And while this film may be about mental illness, it may really be about a time traveling rabbit. You decide!
It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorites and another film rarely noted for psychological themes. But James Stewart, after the fall of the markets and about to commit suicide, is given and a new view of his life, and how he could have affected the world should he have lived.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the second movie to ever win all five major Oscars and questions the definition of a mental illness. An important part of the film changes how we think about mental illness. The most terrifying character in the film is that of Nurse Ratched, not far from the word Wretched. Sometimes the helpers are worse than those for whom they care.
Ben Affleck portrays a vigilante hitman who also happens to be an accountant in the film of the same name. What’s great about this film is it places the story first and the mental health angle second. Specifically, the main character is on the Autism Spectrum and suffering from PTSD.
The film is about a man dealing with short-term memory loss (think: Finding Dory) and how he is trying to solve his wife’s murderer. This is actually my favorite and I think the most realistic portrayal of a person’s inability to form new memories, known as anterograde amnesia. I consider Memento to be one of Christopher Nolan’s finest films.
Hollywood doesn’t always have an accurate representation of mental health conditions or disorders, but when they do, it’s fantastic. What are some of your favorite movies that discuss mental health? Let us know in the comments below on any movies you’d want us to discuss in more detail!