Movies about the realities of depression aren’t usually popular or profitable. As a result, there aren’t many that probe the condition deeply and honestly. The five films in this post are the best I’ve seen for the realism and dramatic power of their stories and the excellence of acting and production. There are many more good movies I’ll write about, but these come to mind first.
I hope you’ll add your suggestions so we can build an extensive list of helpful films.
Sylvia. Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Sylvia Plath in this story of her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, their separation and her suicide.
The title image of Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, is the glass-like enclosure of depression that suffocates and seals her off from living. This image seems to guide the film, as Sylvia sinks deeper and deeper into emotional isolation and emptiness, especially after Hughes (Daniel Craig) leaves her for another woman.
She goes through the motions of living, despite a surge of creativity during which she writes her greatest poetry. As if trying to strike a spark of life, she suggests having an affair to a close friend but looks blank and half-present while doing it. When he tells her that an affair is impossible, he awkwardly refers to his own suicide attempt in vague terms. But suicide is the one thing that stirs her interest. When she hears his story, her response is a chilling single word: “How?” It’s only the method of dying that concerns her.
Plath died when she was only 30, and the film is a fairly accurate version of a tragic story. It’s a powerful portrayal of the way the illness can destroy even the most promising lives.
Helen is the most accurate and moving portrayal of depression and its impact that you’re ever likely to see in a dramatic film. If you’ve been struggling with depression, you’ll recognize the truth in every scene – a viewing experience I often found hard to take but ultimately healing.
Helen (Ashley Judd), a brilliant music professor and pianist, slowly feels the illness taking over and tries to fight back. In a succession of torturing scenes, she tries to remain intimate with her husband, David, but recoils at his touch. She wants to hold onto her 13-year old daughter, but her repeated breakdowns frighten the girl away. She is determined to return to teaching, but in front of her class she can hardly speak. The students can’t stand it and walk out.
She keeps getting worse, tries to kill herself several times and can hardly say a word to anyone. There is one person, however, she can turn to, Mathilda, a gifted student of hers who is coming out of her own severe depression. The film centers on the relationship between these two. Mathilda offers the kind of support that can only come from someone who has shared this agony.The story follows Helen’s painful and halting recovery but also brings out the terrible cost not only to her but to those who love her.
The film’s focus is its careful depiction of the illness itself. Depression is the relentless, invisible force driving everyone in every scene. It’s a disaster that befalls a group of people, and we watch their struggle to comprehend it and figure out what to do. The film would be especially helpful for anyone who is living with a depressed person and trying to understand what they’re going through.
Prozac Nation. This adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir of the same name brings out the angry side of depression as well as the flat-on-your-back despair. The story portrays Elizabeth (Christina Ricci) as a confused and anxious teenager starting her college years at Harvard. She’s already published some articles and early on attracts the attention of an editor at Rolling Stone. But she remains detached from any close emotional connection.
Her means of isolating herself, however, is not passive withdrawal and silence. Instead, she finds friends, attracts boyfriends and works hard at her writing, only to undo everything. She lashes out viciously at each person who gets close to her, driving them away with one angry outburst after another until they can’t take anymore.
She knows that what she’s doing is the opposite of what she wants, yet she can’t stop. There are episodes of deep depression when she’s in a trance-like state, and her writing slows down so much that she can’t meet her magazine commitments, much less finish her class work. She gets into therapy with a frank but compassionate psychiatrist who can help her reconnect with her real self for brief periods. Prozac becomes part of her treatment just as its use is taking off with the American public, and the medication gives her some relief.
There’s no final resolution or end to her depression, but she does have breakthrough moments with her mother (Jessica Lange). As portrayed in this movie version, Wurtzel’s need is to struggle through relationships to reach a few moments of honest and loving connection. It’s the stormy side of depression, and this film captures it well with an excellent cast.
The Hours is based on Michael Cunningham’s novel about depression in the lives of three women. Their interwoven stories take place on the same day of the month but in years separated by decades. All the stories are linked by reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. That story also takes place within a day and contrasts, as do the lives of Cunningham’s characters, a conventional and prosperous social life with the inner drive of suicidal depression.
The film begins and ends with scenes of Virginia Woolf’s (Nicole Kidman) suicide in 1941, but the greater part of her story takes place on a day in 1923 when she is beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. She lives in fear of the return of the suicidal depression that has caused earlier breakdowns. Her life, however, has become constrained by her overly watchful servants and husband who want to be nearby at all times. After an emotionally turbulent visit from her sister, she tries to flee by train to London, but her husband brings her home. While he dreads the possibility of recurring illness, she comes to see that she has to accept the identity she has rather than live in fear. Tragically, that resolve was not enough to save her.
Laura Brown, played by Julianne Moore, is a housewife in a prosperous suburban family of 1951. She has become emotionally hollowed out and can barely handle the preparations for her young son Richard’s birthday. After a disastrous effort to bake a cake, she leaves him in the care of a friend and goes off to do an errand. The boy senses something is terribly wrong, and, in fact, Laura checks into a hotel, planning to kill herself with sleeping pills. She abandons the attempt after a frightening dream and returns home to the birthday party. We learn later that she leaves her family after the birth of her second child as the only way she can think of to preserve her sanity. This is a powerful portrait of deep emotional turmoil buried under the code of silence about mental illness that prevailed in the 1950s.
A 2001 day in the life of Clarissa (Meryl Streep) brings back Laura’s son Richard (Ed Harris) as an adult. He is debilitated by AIDS and is now suicidally depressed. Richard refers to Clarissa as a Mrs. Dalloway sort of character, the always busy and perfect social organizer. On this day, she is arranging the details of his birthday celebration. It’s an attempt to revive his spirits, but he ends his life before the party can even start.
The acting and skillful interweaving of the three stories make this a quietly devastating portrait of depression as a silent killer and a force that affects everyone close to a person suffering from the illness.
Revolutionary Road. Most reviews of this film, based on Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, describe it as a commentary on the stifling social roles of suburban life in the 1950s, but that’s only one dimension of this powerful story.
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet) start their married life full of excitement and the promise of Frank’s ambition to be a writer. But Frank winds up with a successful marketing career in New York, after dodging his commitment to April to live the writer’s life in Paris. The couple move to a prosperous suburb where April begins to sink into depression.
It’s true that the conventional role of housewife and mother limits her life, but that’s no explanation for the seriousness of her illness. Her emotions are cancelled, her children don’t reach her, and Frank is shut out as well. April makes love awkwardly with a neighbor who is obsessed with her, but she can’t feel enough to start a relationship.
Finally, her days become mechanical exercises. One morning she carefully organizes her suicide to preserve the orderliness of the house. It’s as if she is sure that her physical disappearance would hardly be noticed.
Many of the characters, in fact, put her right out of their minds, as if she had been an embarrassing anomaly. The neighbor who wanted her in his life is the exception. He continues to obsess about her and can’t stop talking about what she was like and the shock of her death.
All these films depict depression’s impact in a way that goes beyond most discussions of the illness. Many books and documentaries present it as an intensely private affliction, but its effects are much more widespread. Depression becomes a dominant force in the lives of everyone related to the ill person. Perhaps it takes the dramatic impact of a movie to make that clear.