In a summer of blockbusters which seem to celebrate killings and mayhem, the simultaneous delivery of three films about mental health arrives like a sign of sanity. Love and Mercy, Inside Outand Infinitely Polar Bear, admirable though not quite perfect, at least frame discussion of mental health issues in a world of films that otherwise raises serious issues about how crazy our culture has become.
Mark Ruffalo has done acute characterizations that range from the pathologically unreliable brother Terry Prescott in "You Can Count On Me" to the rock solid brother David Schultz in last year's Foxcatcher. In Infinitely Polar Bear, his Cam Stuart bounces back and forth between these characterizations -- the painful, awkward, embarrassing, irritating manifestation of bipolar manic depression. Ruffalo is hard to watch as he veers from self destruction to self pity. He's harder for his two young girls to live with. Ruffalo is left to raise the girls when his wife Zoe Saldana goes off to business school in New York. The kids are not alright. They are confused, humiliated and tested by their father's condition. There are some problems with writer/director Maya Forbes semi-autobiographical film. But the principals all do justice to the film's spirit and unflinching story, in the end wrestling an unruly script and structure into perhaps a bit over optimistic resolution.
Inside Out is an easier, smoother journey. Pixar's sumptuously animated story is more familiar, a young girl's difficult move in this case from her comfortable Minnesota childhood home to the more challenging environs of urban San Francisco. We see the color coded emotions Inside, led by Amy Poehler's Joy, battling for control. The film is structured both Inside and Out as a journey to use feelings and experience to guide growth and handle adversity. The characters and situations are a bit simplified. The movie is also a bit too cleverly stocked with references to keep adults amused, but do little to advance the plot or enlighten the demographic audience.
Still Pixar deserves high marks for well executing a compelling project which goes far beyond the violence and irrelevance of most animation and young person fare.
If Inside Out succeeds for younger moviegoers, Love and Mercy is an even better tale for the Boomer Generation. The epic fall from grace of iconic Beach Boy singer Brian Wilson seemed to defy cinematic treatment. The boy genius had fallen prey to alcohol, drugs and his own personal demons. It was both too common and too painful to recount.
But Director Bill Pohlad (Producer of 12 Years a Slave and Brokeback Mountain) has woven together the torn apart shreds of Wilson's life, using Paul Dano as the troubled young phenom and John Cusack as the drug-addled wash-up. Cusack's Wilson has fallen under the control of Paul Giamatti's vicious, mis-diagnosing therapist Dr. Eugene Landy. Cusack's chance relationship with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) becomes the rescuing rock upon which Wilson may be able to rebuild his life. The chemistry between the warm, sparkling, broad-faced Banks and the hollow-eyed, long-faced Cusack chisels a path for mental health.
In Love and Mercy, Infinitely Polar Bear and Inside Out, the struggle to lead a normal, fulfilling life is a battle for mental health and balance. To do so, however, we need more cinematic examples of what such a life would be... the heroic struggles of daily life, growing up, work, raising a family. Fighting re-animated dinosaurs, threatening creatures from the future and all manner of the undead may be somewhat of a diversion. But more useful and in these cases more entertaining, as well, are those films which provide clues for dealing with our real life, daily challenges!