- Is he being funny? I can't tell. (Publicity photo)
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have fast become one of my favorite directorial duos working today — behind the Coen brothers, of course, but well ahead of the Wachowski and Hughes brothers. The pair's debut, Half Nelson (2006), looked on paper like a disaster waiting to happen: Ryan Gosling, fresh off The Notebook, playing a middle-school teacher who freebases cocaine. And yet, the film was an unsentimental triumph. Boden and Fleck next applied their soft touch to baseball, making a film about a Dominican pitcher trying to make it to the big leagues. Again, they dodged a minefield of cliches: Sugar perfectly captured the contemporary landscape of our national pastime.
Now, with It's Kind of a Funny Story, Boden and Fleck have taken perhaps their biggest risk yet: a romantic teen dramedy set in an adult psychiatric wing.
For a third time, though, they've somehow pulled it off. The film is not as much of a departure as some would have it, but whereas dark comedy percolated through their first two films, It's Kind of a Funny Story is saturated with it. There's no "kind of" about it: This movie, adapted from the novel by Ned Vizzini, is very funny. But it's equally affecting, too, and sometimes at the exact same moment. A couple of times I even found myself laughing while tearing up. If you knew me personally, you'd be wide-eyed right now.
The movie stars Keir Gilchrist, a British actor in what must be considered a breakout role, as a 16-year-old named Craig who wakes up feeling more depressed than usual. He goes to the emergency room, where he tells a dispassionate receptionist that he wants to kill himself, and is admitted to the adult psychiatric wing — the wing for teenagers is closed for renovation — where he soon realizes he's in over his head (as it were): His depression is nothing compared to the mental illnesses of those around him. A doctor asks for his belt and shoelaces, to which Craig replies, "I don't think I'll be here that long. I have school tomorrow." The record needle scratches as he's informed of a minimum five-day stay.
Just as the classroom in Half Nelson and the ballfield in Sugar felt utterly authentic, so too does the "mental ward" in It's Kind of... In another life, I spent an even briefer time in one such ward (stories!), and I can attest that Boden and Fleck nailed it. Patients don't wander around in straightjackets or rattle window cages, but yes, some of them talk to themselves, or shout nonsense at random, or stare catatonically into space for hours at a time. Most patients, though, are sentient and ambulatory. They're not crippled, just a little more confused or lost or sad than your average person, and all they want is to find a way out — not of the ward, specifically, but of their illness.
In that sense, Craig does belong, and the film treats his despair seriously — as do his fellow patients, most of whom, rather than being stereoptypical punchlines, are treated with both humor and humanity by the filmmakers. Exhibiting newfound range, Zach Galifianakis plays one such patient, Bobby, who befriends Craig and gives him the courage to approach Noelle (Emma Roberts), a teenager admitted to the hospital because she cuts herself. She bears several scars on her left cheek, but they do little to distract from her beauty. We see what he sees in her, and so the rooting begins.
There are complications, of course, particularly when Craig's "real life" — the one outside the hospital, where his best friend is dating the girl Craig loves, or thinks he loves — finally penetrates his hospitalized life. But every moment is handled thoughtfully, the woozy camera giving the characters room to breathe, while also hurtling the viewer into the past or future — and even, on occasion, into Craig's thoughts and fantasies, where we see that he's not only like the other patients, but a lot like us, too. We are sane and insane, all of us, and the proportions of each are subject to change without prior notice.