Depression has a way of tricking even the happiest of people into thinking that life isn’t worth experiencing. Their energy is evaporated, what once was pleasurable is now less-than appealing and the physical symptoms are completely taxing.
Also, one of the thousand depressing things about depression is just how difficult it is to cinematically do it justice. Other illnesses – manic-depression, schizophrenia, mesothelioma or obsessive-compulsive disorder – are easy to dramatize. But drama demands that a protagonist, above all, want something. Most clinically depressed people merely want to be left alone. And that leaves any drama about them undramatic from the jump.
What’s more, 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 sincerely. However, this list today will look at films that not only deal with the topic honestly but also provide an excellent movie-viewing experience.
Some of these films were met with critical acclaim and enthusiasm upon their release while others gained a substantial cult status that has made them duty-bound references of the topic. Inevitably, there are some minor spoilers ahead.
10. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Directed by James Mangold and based on Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir of the same name, Girl Interrupted is a powerful look at mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and crippling depression. In the film, Susanna (Winona Ryder) is detached from her parents and depressed, although the causes are only vaguely hinted at. After attempting suicide Susanna signs herself into Claymoore Hospital, a facility to treat mental illness. Run by the aloof Doctor Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), the other patients at Claymoore include the hyperactive and rebellious Lisa (Angelina Jolie) and the vulnerable but pokerfaced Daisy (Brittany Murphy).
And while Susanna may be the chief protagonist in this film, she is seriously eclipsed by certified psychopath Lisa, who keeps absconding from the hospital and who uses her considerable powers of manipulation to run rings around the staff and patients. When she befriends Susanna, she is a malignant influence – encouraging her to not take her medication and to generally become an obnoxious little brat.
Above all, through its searing character studies, Girl Interrupted provides genuine and gripping insights into aspects of humanity which are revealing, extraordinary and sometimes oddly humorous.
9. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Director by Sofia Coppola and based on the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides follows the events surrounding the lives of five sisters – Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A. J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) – who come from a very strict and overprotective family, and their relationship with a group of four neighborhood boys who attempt to befriend them from a distance.
After the youngest sister makes an initial attempt at suicide, the sisters are put under close scrutiny by their parents, eventually being put into near-confinement, which leads to increasingly depressive and isolated behavior. The film reaches its tragic climax one night when the girls invite the boys over, but the boys discover that the sisters have all just carried out a suicide pact.
The Lisbon parents then move away and the suburb in which they lived falls into decline. We never find out why the sisters all decided to take their own lives, and the tragedy remains unexplained as their deaths touch the boys for the rest of their own lives. A very curious and eclectic piece of work.
8. The Hours (2002)
Directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours is based on Michael Cunningham’s novel about depression in the lives of three women – Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep). 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 Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. That story also takes place within a day and contrasts.
In the first story, Clarissa is a New Yorker who is preparing an award party for a long-time friend who has AIDS. Her friend commits suicide that night, feeling that the award is insincere since he didn’t receive it before he was so close to death from his illness. In the second story, a pregnant Laura, very much unhappy with her life, secretly checks into a hotel with the intention of taking an overdose of pills. She has a change of heart, however, when she wakes up from her failed attempt. And finally, there is Woolf’s own story, in which she is beginning to write her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while struggling to cope with depression, headaches and her feelings about being a lesbian.
Life may or may not be everything it’s cracked up to be. This touching and poignant movie most definitely is.
7. Sylvia (2003)
The mythologically suicidal Sylvia Plath suffered from depression decades before it was branded an illness, and the most compelling thing about Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the ferociously doomed American poet of the ’50s and early ’60s, is the way that it digs deep into the spirituality of Plath’s malaise.
Sylvia opens in 1956 with Plath meeting the charismatic Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) at a Cambridge party. The two share an erotically charged dance, followed by a passionate kiss before beginning the most destructive literary relationship this side of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Much like the character in her novel The Bell Jar, Plath goes through the motions of living, trying in vain to find some way out of her deep depression. She finds herself feeling emotionally closed-off and isolated. Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. Plath took her own life when she was only 30. However, the movie does an excellent job of portraying the toll that this illness can take on even the most promising and talented of people.
6. Revolutionary Road (2008)
After the classic love story narrative of Titanic, seeing Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reunited for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road had many swooning at the potential for more heart-warming if tragic romance. Sadly, anyone who was expecting a similar film was shocked to find that Revolutionary Road – based on the book by Richard Yates – is a harsh look at a relationship which is built on fleeting romance, rather than true love, and the inevitable breakdown which follows.
Frank and April Wheeler (Dicaprio and Winslet) seemingly have it all: great kids, a beautiful suburban home and anything else you could ask for. Below their marriage’s surface, however, there’s contempt, fizzled passion, and the shattering hopelessness of being trapped in lives they don’t really want. All because, back when the butterflies were fresh, love blinded them.
Revolutionary Road’s portrait of a disintegrating marriage is so unflinching, so unsentimental, and so bleak, that you really need to be in a buoyant emotional state to get through it. Though, you’d be happy that you did.
5. Antichrist (2009)
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is not the type of movie you want to watch right before you go to sleep; or before you eat; or before you do anything, really. It’s not just that there is a little gore here and there; it’s that the movie is so tremendously upsetting that you will have no safe haven to turn to once it’s over.
The film tells the story of a nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, after the death of their child, retreat to a cabin in the woods where he experiences bizarre visions and she falls even deeper into depression which ultimately manifests itself with violent sexual behavior and sadism.
This violent behavior ultimately comes to a head when the women crushes her husband’s testicles with a block of wood, masturbates him until he ejaculates blood and then cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. And yes, the film shows all of this in all of its explicit glory. In other words, this movie isn’t for everyone
4. Helen (2009)
From the outside, Helen Leonard (Ashley Judd) seems to have it all. She’s a successful college music professor and lives in a beautiful home with her daughter and loving husband. But inside she’s harboring a secret. Namely, an overwhelming case of depression that quickly escalates from short panic attacks to a condition that consumes her every waking moment. Eventually her husband takes her to a hospital where the seriousness of her state is finally revealed. A doctor explains, “Your wife is not unhappy, Mr. Leonard. Your wife is ill.”
As her condition worsens, she attempts suicide several times and finds herself barely able to speak to anyone. Her relationship with one particular student, however, is her saving grace. Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith) is a gifted student who is fighting her own depression; the relationship between the two becomes the central focus of the movie, with Mathilda offering the kind of support that only someone who has also been through depression can offer.
If you’ve been struggling with hopelessness, you’ll recognize the truth in every scene of this film – a viewing experience that’s often difficult to take but ultimately healing.
3. A Single Man (2009)
First time writer/director Tom Ford, formerly a famous fashion designer, financed the entire production of his debut, A Single Man, out of his own pocket. That, more than anything, illuminates the care and precision with which this impressive and chilly film is made.
Set over the course of one day in 1962, the film stars Colin Firth as George Falconer, a college professor contemplating suicide in the wake of the accident that killed his long-time partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Throughout the film, he spends the day getting his affairs together and planning his suicide. As he prepares, he remembers his lover and finds himself emotionally affected by the people he meets, including his dearest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a student and a male prostitute.
A Single Man is a patient and never less than gripping character study that serves as a reminder of the emotional intimacy achievable on film.
2. Cake (2014)
From the opening scene of her annoyingly syrupy support group for sufferers of chronic pain, Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) has the audience firmly on her side. While everyone else expresses shock and sadness over the loss of one of their own, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who recently jumped to her death from a freeway overpass, Claire responds with ruthless, refreshing sarcasm (“Way to go, Nina!”). You almost have to wonder if she’s considered the suicide option herself, given the physically and emotional trauma we later learn she’s been through.
In a nutshell; Claire is addicted to pain pills, she refuses to cooperate with her physical therapist, knowingly sabotaging and delaying her already slow recovery. Her off-putting gruffness screams amplified self-pity of a person unable (or rather, unwilling) to recover. Instead, we watch her quietly suffer, become obsessed with and haunted by the idea of Nina, and strike up an almost predatory friendship with her widower husband, Roy (Sam Worthington).
Directed by Daniel Barnz, Cake is rather smart about the seriousness of depression without being domineering. It’s a thoughtful and frequently moving drama that insightfully illuminates what it’s like to live with illness and agony.
1. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is nominally an Australian horror film about a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who are haunted by an evil figure from a children’s book that comes to life with the intent to kill them. And while the film is indeed terrifying, writer/director Jennifer Kent has stated numerous times that The Babadook wasn’t necessarily meant to be a horror film, and you can see that behind the action.
The Babadook is actually about the damage clinical depression does to those who suffer from it: the toll it takes on their lives and their families. “The Babadook” isn’t a monster or a ghoul. It’s a chemical imbalance. Amelia is still mourning her husband’s death via car accident, which happened while they were en route to the hospital for Sam’s birth. The metaphor here is rather explicit: Amelia is suffering from a rather serious case of depression, one that puts her and her son (whom she blames for her husband’s death) at risk.
Overall, The Babadook is a different type of horror film that puts character and emotional issues first. In a movie industry that throws no-budget found-footage films into theaters every quarter to make a quick buck, The Babadook is an increasingly rare breed that undoubtedly deserves to be championed. It works as both a great stand alone horror film and as one of the most convincing and interesting metaphors for mental illness that you’re likely to see.
Are there any other films that you’d like to add to the list? Let us know in the comment section below.