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Alison Wilde gives some in-depth focus on the representation of mental health issues in film / 14 July 2010

Greenberg was directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. It was released on 11th June 2010. Exhibit A was directed by Dom Rotheroe and stars Bradley Cole, Brittany Ashworth Angela Forrest and Oliver Lee. It was released in 2007

There has been a considerable amount of disability on screen this month. Faced with a variety of options, I have chosen to review the two ‘disability’ films, which I've enjoyed the most. In my opinion, tangentially linked to uncomfortable issues of mental health, 'Greenberg' and 'Exhibit A' are progressive films which, despite their somewhat risky content, take a subtle approach to the connections between mental health and disabling cultures.

They also serve as timely reminders that we can't make rules about what should and shouldn't be depicted without losing crucial aspects of our stories - both the incredible pain and joys of being in the world.

But first, a few words about mental illness and representational dilemmas. Characters experiencing mental health difficulties are the life-blood of storytelling even though they may not be picked up on our disability radar as often as they should be.

How many films, TV dramas and comedies can you count that don't have a mental health related storyline, inevitably reminding us of how to be ‘normal?’ Clearly, many dangers lie in this territory across the media, particularly in terms of maintaining old stereotypes of evil or setting up new ones.

Whilst this is an issue to be taken seriously, particularly when stories are framed in terms of individual pathology and people are reduced to their mental health status, critics have often condemned those which place characters with mental health concerns at their heart.

The portrayal of schizophrenia in the character of Charlie (or Hank) in Me, Myself and Irene (played by Jim Carrey) was denounced as a ‘new low’ for its perpetuation of inaccurate and stigmatising images of schizophrenia by the Time for Change campaigning group. This was despite the affection that many people have demonstrated for his character and very direct portrayals of the disabling social world he lives in.

Conversely, Time for Change have praised the portrayal of John Nash’s experience of schizophrenia (and his achievement as a Nobel Laureate In Economics) in A Beautiful Mind as a realistic representation, despite considerable inaccuracies and its distance from the lives of most people.

Whilst it would be relatively easy to avoid using supporting characters experiencing mental distress as dramatic pivots in stories which otherwise marginalise them, I’m not sure that we can represent leading protagonists in a way that both engages us with characters and avoids drama. I’m not even sure if this would be desirable. That said, Greenberg succeeds despite a distinct lack of drama, allowing us stark and revealing reflections on the aching emptiness of life when the structures we construct to give us a sense of meaning, are removed.

Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg a 40 year old man, descended from a Jewish father and Gentile Mother. Following a discharge from rehab is he is residing in his brother's family home, in Los Angeles, caring for their dog, Mahler, whilst they are on holiday. Despite his commitment to doing nothing, he is faced with a range of life issues, some new, some unresolved matters from his past. We watch him attempt to handle these in a defensive if somewhat ambivalent manner.

The film tells us little about his mental health, subtly revealing that he is at the beginning of a recovery period. He is faced with concerns about romantic relationships, his impending status as middle-aged man and his unwanted responsibility for an ailing dog. His negotiations with his own fluctuating desires and the expectations for him to conform to social pressures (such as driving a car, and finding a job and a home) add to his edgy defensiveness, conspiring to exaggerate his self-destructive and insensitive behaviour. The maxim 'hurt people hurt people', is an unfortunate, recurring, but knowing motif in this film.

This film takes big risks- Greenberg is not a very likeable person. He probably reminds us of people we have met and criticised for their failure to sort themselves out, or of ourselves and the haunting experience of loneliness or regret we may feel in low periods of our lives. It is also slow and meandering film with no clear sense of direction. For me this was very powerful and added to its stark, yet sometimes funny, depictions of everyday life.

The awkwardness of his life and personality was equally matched by the performance of Greta Gerwig as Florence, his brother's assistant, as they make clumsy attempts to forge some kind of a relationship. Their ineptitude in both sexual encounters and exchanges of affection is, perhaps, true for most of us, and this certainly heightened my engagement with them both. His attempts to make new connections with his old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans) are equally fraught. This film has no easy answers for us.

It is easy for us to identify with Greenberg's pain, but despite his semi-misanthropic attitudes and reluctance to conform he was, thankfully, not portrayed as a libertarian savant. As frustrating as some of his actions were, his estrangement from what passes for normal life was poignant, demonstrating some of the disabling effects of contemporary culture in a thoughtfully subtle manner. Whilst most of his time is taken up by his irritation or rejection of those around him these complaints often add to his endearing qualities.

One of the most memorable of these, for me, was a complaint letter written to Starbucks: "Dear Starbucks, in your attempt to manufacture culture out of fast food coffee you've been surprisingly successful for the most part. The part that isn't covered by 'the most part' sucks."

Most importantly perhaps, the divisions between characters were drawn gently, avoiding harsh distinctions between right and wrong, between normal and weird, emphasising universal problems of social belonging and connection.

Exhibit A, an independent film, proceeds in a very different manner. Skilfully drawing us into a complex relationship with its central character Andy King, a loving father of a recognisably conventional family, living in an English suburb (a king aspiring to his own detached castle), it leads us to the increasingly disturbing behaviour and eventual murder we anticipate from the start. We know from the initial seconds of the film that we are about to witness 'evidence' from the crime scene (as the title suggests).

The film proceeds as footage from the family's camcorder, until we are drawn into the film's story. The camcorder frames the themes of the film in a number of ways: simultaneously it is a symbol of an escalating lifestyle they cannot afford, a sign of parental love as a gift from father to daughter and a recurring means to comment on the presence of surveillance in our lives. The camera has, in fact, a leading role to play in the story. As Andy buries himself deeper in debt and lies in his futile attempts to care for the idealised type of family he aspires to lead, his daughter grows increasingly worried about his erratic behaviour and, turning the camera's focus away from the young woman she's 'stalking' next door, she begins use the camera to investigate her father's life. His daughter's possession of the camera reveals secrets which are too difficult to face, forcing him to take control of the camera and the situation.

The camera is used exceptionally well in this film. Despite the suspension of disbelief that may be required to watch the film as recovered camcorder footage, the splicing of an increasingly disturbing family life with moments of family bliss and possibility (such as their coveted move to a home at the beach) is a forceful reminder of the costs of ambition and ever-increasing expectations.

As disturbing and horrific as this film certainly is, it allows us to know and understand the intricate layers of social and cultural pressure which build and escalate to untenable proportions, precipitating his final actions. It is a major strength of this film that the viewer feels compelled to understand Andy King's journey towards murder. And, like Greenberg, we are not pushed into a position of 'blaming' any other characters - the whole family are portrayed as 'ordinary' if equally flawed human beings with their own distinct lives.

Despite the almost unremitting bleakness of this story, it is told with humour, intelligence and attention to detail. The digging of a hole, for a pool, in their back garden serves as backdrop for increasing tension, is a symbolic reminder of their social aspirations and of his deepening and increasingly murky crisis (the finished pool looks filthy).

The pool is often put to use in the service of dark humour. Andy's repeated attempts to contrive an accident for ‘You’ve been framed’ by filming his son digging and falling into the hole were unforgettable. His desperate attempts to gain money, regardless of the danger to his son, the feeling of incredible discomfort as he pursued the perfect image and his increasing rage at his thwarted attempts actually made me laugh until tears ran down my face. Okay, I was, embarassingly, the only person in the audience who seemed to have this reaction.

This film may be open to a number of different interpretations. It would be sad if these were reduced to a study of individual pathology when this film has succeeded so well in linking mental health with social pressures. For me, Exhibit A shows us how fragile the structures of job status and family position are and how normative and destructive these aspects of life can be when pieces of the fabric of daily life are removed. We witness the devastasting consequences that that expectations of masculinity ’normal families’ and 'normal careers' can have upon men and their families.

Both of these films tell uncomfortable stories in sensitive and compelling ways. Despite their in-depth character studies and challenging or brutal storylines, Greenberg and Exhibit A show how simple it can be to appeal to human similarities, rather than sensationalised stories and portrayals of exceptionality.

Keywords: film,invisible disabled people,labelling,mental health,