Instant Watch: Heartfelt and Honest Portrayals of Mental Health

Can you believe this post was originally going to be about foreign prestige animation? It's true. I had a whole slew of adult, experimental, and critically acclaimed animated films not made in America all set up in my queue to talk about in the context of one token foreign and/or art animated feature at the Oscars. Then I saw Mary and Max and connected it to a much more intriguing theme.

Mental health is an issue that often gets slighted in American discourse. If someone is crazy in fiction, they're locked up in the attic or shipped away to an abusive asylum where they plot to escape. People get up in arms that the narrative films are exploitative and the documentary films are practically canonizing the sick as a greater "other" to be dealt with. It's discouraging to say the least.

Thankfully, services like Netflix exist where we can find a wide range of films with different perspectives on the issue. I like to call this trio of films Heartfelt and Honest Portrayals of Mental Health. Some are great, some are off-putting, but all are sensitive and realistic without being exploitive or coddling of their subject.

Marwencol (2010)

Marwencol is an intriguing documentary portrait of unintended artist Mark Hogancamp. In 2000, Hogancamp was beaten outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. He was left brain damaged and unable to work for long periods of time. He received a few months of therapy and rehabilitation through Medicaid before his funding was cut off. Hogancamp developed his own method of therapy after that: he built an entire world at 1/6 scale called Marwencol. Everyone he develops a relationship with is inserted into his WWII fantasy where the Nazis are after 1/6 scale Mark's liquor supply and will stop at nothing to attain it. There are witches, women, speak easies, clothing stores, and even jeeps that have traveled thousands of scale miles to bring Mark's vision to life.

Marwencol does not cast any judgments on Mark Hogancamp's situation. Even the discussion of reaching his limit on Medicaid is benign. This is meant to be an honest portrayal of a damaged man and director Jeff Malmberg succeeds at that. Would the film be more compelling if he developed a stronger thesis about Mark's situation? Yes. But would that film be the tribute to Mark that he set out to make? No. It would be using Mark as a tool to approach the failings of Medicaid or the opportunistic nature of the art community in relation to "outsider art." The audience gets to learn about Mark the same way Jeff Malmberg learned about Mark. First you meet Marwencol, then you hear his story, then you meet the residents transplanted into Marwencol, and only then do you learn how severe Mark's issues actually are.

Marwencol refuses to cast judgment on Mark either way. There is a scene late in the film that sees many new people react to Mark that demonstrates why. Regardless of his mental and physical issues, Mark is a person who deserves respect like any other person. He does not need to be treated like a pre-schooler and he does not need to be treated like genius. He is not a danger to himself or anyone else with what he does in Marwencol. He is simply someone coping with catastrophic events in the best way he can. This film is, in its own way, using that general sentiment as the driving thesis. It is not the strongest argument ever committed to celluloid, but it is refreshing to see a film treat a subject like this with respect.

Rating: 5/10

Mary and Max (2009)

Mary and Max is a stop-motion animated film from Australia. It concerns a lonely little Australian girl named Mary becoming pen pals with a lonely middle-aged New York man named Max by chance. Mary has no friends and lives with her over-worked father and alcoholic mother. She picks out a random name in a NYC phonebook and writes the man a letter asking "Where do babies come from?" Max receives the letter, has an anxiety attack, and writes the strange little girl back with a fanciful explanation about the miracle of life.

What starts as a quirky act of serendipity develops into an honest portrait of some serious mental health issues. Max is depressed, suffers from chronic anxiety attacks, and has been diagnosed with Asperger's. He reacts in very strange ways to Mary's letters because he cannot decipher the actual emotional context of her writing. He panics over any subject that makes him uncomfortable with his own situation in life, whether that is his tremendous weight, his lack of friends, or his Asperger's. Mary grows up over the course of the film and becomes obsessed with trying to cure the world of mental illness to finally help Max overcome his issues. However, her own damaged upbringing draws her into a cycle of increasing depression and alcoholism. Mary and Max do everything they can to help each other by mail even if they are incapable of helping themselves.

Mary and Max is the most honest and heartfelt portrayal of mental health issues I've ever seen in a film. It's amazing to me that it took a very stylized stop-motion animated world--Mary is always in sepia, Max is always in black and white--to achieve this level of honesty. It might even be that the animation serves as a distancing effect to allow the audience to better understand the greater issues at play in the story. Not once did I think Max's condition was exaggerated. His anxiety attacks looked like my own anxiety attacks, and the symptoms of his Apserger's were just like the symptoms I've seen in some of my high school students.

The film earns its moments of heightened emotional content because it grounds them in an unflinching reality. The tone of the film matures as Mary grows older, allowing her to better understand what is really happening with Max. There is only one issue never in doubt for the two characters, and that is their friendship from the first time they opened each other's letters. Everything else in Mary and Max is about the journey and growth of two different people.

Rating: 8/10

Tarnation (2003)

Tarnation is a highly-stylized archival footage documentary about director Jonathan Caouette's experience growing up with a schizophrenic mother. In the first few minutes of the film, you know you are in for something different. Black and white footage of his mother singing a hymn in the kitchen is distorted with neon pinks and blues flickering around the frame. Photographs, audio, and film are combined into a dual-portrait of mother and son.

This is not an easy film to watch by any stretch of the imagination. Caouette always errs on the side of over-exposure to get his vision across. You see video diaries he created growing up about his situation with his mother, which are only edited for consistent style and brevity. This isn't some polished reflection of his memories; this is a direct portal into how he actually grew up. Tarnation is almost hypnotic, blurring together sight, sound, fact, and emotion into a continuous tableau of the impact a significant mental illness can have on family members.

Tarnation is disturbing because Caouette wants the experience to be disturbing. He had the option to soften the impact of this found footage and chose not to. His goal is clearly to represent the anxiety and torment that his mother's condition caused in his own development.

This is not a comfortable film to sit through. Even the bursts of neon color, flickering like the overexposed corners of old film stock, become an upsetting device in the film. Nothing feels balanced or normal the entire way through. It is a film that must be seen to be understood, and even then you might not want to think about it enough to understand what you just saw.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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