It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
On September 14, 2010 I did a Q & A with cast and crew of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The filmmaking partners Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were young, sharp, engaging and fun and Emma Roberts, of Nancy Drew fame, was engaging as well. Zack Galifianakis came in late (others have done it, we’re just glad to have you here) and then pretended to fall asleep the moment he sat down. It was perplexing, and extra fun when he finally woke up. They cared about the small film and we discussed the research and character work that were part of the film experience.
Link to original NBR review
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is kind of a comedy about a subject that isn’t easy to find the humor in. The main characters – Craig, a suicidal 16 year old boy, Bobby, a suicidal 40-something man, and Noelle, a 17 year old girl with her own problems – find each other in a Brooklyn psychiatric ward where their lives become intertwined. Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, who ended up in a psychiatric ward himself because of the pressures to repeat the success of his first book, Funny Story is the third feature film written and directed by the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
As in Boden and Fleck’s previous features, Half-Nelson and Sugar, the theme is one of discovery and overcoming odds. The story is told from the point-of-view of Craig, who checks himself into a mental hospital only to discover that the youth ward is closed to renovation and he will have to stay with the adults. Craig is a middle class boy with too much pressure on his shoulders. Surprised and overwhelmed to have been accepted into the most elite private school in Manhattan he has become an outsider among his own friends. Adding to his angst, the girl he likes has become his best friend’s girlfriend and his father relentlessly pressures him about career achievement. And he seems to have a chemical imbalance for which he has stopped taking his medication.
Keir Gilchrist (television’s United States of Tara), plays Craig with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, thrust into a world that he finds amazing and worrisome. He is the center of every scene and often heard in voice-over – providing us with a continuous update on his plans and concerns. Although narration can feel like an annoyingly redundant cliché in the wrong hands, the filmmakers use it here as part of a larger style. There are freeze frames that allow for description and commentary, animations that spring from Craig’s drawings, and even a live performance musical fantasy sequence where all of the characters in the film do a glam rendition of Queen’s “Under Pressure.” We are privy to the struggle in both the world and the mind of Craig. It’s the first time the filmmakers have told a story in such a subjective manner – and the first feature they have made to be adapted from a novel. Fortunately Gilchrist creates a likable character and we quickly settle into seeing life as he does. And it is a fairly interesting world he has fallen into.
Overall, the acting in this film has a pleasingly natural and realistic feel to it. But the story is most engaging when Zack Galifianakis is on the screen. He plays Bobby, a guy who has mastered the art of survival in the ward but is about to be released from the hospital with no place to go. Galifianakis makes the most of each scene by using a range of emotion that gradually expands as the film progresses. He is reserved but still very funny. When Craig arrives at the ward he mistakes, as do we, the patient for a doctor. It’s a funny scene because we get in on the joke before Craig and enjoy waiting for him to finally “get-it”. Bobby is destined to be Craig’s mentor – and we get to know him in a big brother role (hilariously teaching Craig about women) and as a vulnerable father ultimately facing a bitter wife and a confused young daughter.
Noelle is portrayed by Emma Roberts as trusting, funny and troubled. Although the characters do not discuss it we see numerous scars on her arms. She is a cutter, most likely suicidal, and clearly attracted to Craig. There are a number of other characters in the ward who come across with quirky and distinct personalities – Craig’s roommate is a Middle-Eastern man who will not get out of bed, a Latino man believes he is a woman magnet, Bobby’s friends seem more like big children than adult mental patients. The staff, led by Viola Davis as Dr. Eden Minerva, seem competent and caring. Considering the situation everybody is really quite well behaved – which ultimately feels a bit unrealistic, even for a film that mixes comedy and drama. The fact that most of the characters take some kind of positive step, whether coming out of their shells and dancing at a pizza party, reconciling with their daughter and finding a place to live (Bobby), or finding that someone special (Craig and Noelle) feels like a bit of a stretch, making the adult world of mental illness seem easier to transcend than it probably is. On the other hand Craig’s experience – he may have found a way to face life as a teenager and not be worried or ashamed about his “difference” – could resonate with younger audiences and perhaps provide an alternative perspective for those who suffer from either depression or simply “growing up”. That in itself would be enough for the audience to go home with. Fortunately Boden and Fleck also bring to the film a stylish sense of storytelling and enough laughs to remind us that humor can help us through what seem like the most difficult of times.