Insane Society: Craig, left, thinks hes nuts; everyone else says he should man up. s nuts; everyone else says he should man up.
Insane Society: Craig, left, thinks hes nuts; everyone else says he should man up. s nuts; everyone else says he should man up.

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Craig is a sharp kid. He’s got a cool, supportive family. He goes to an elite Manhattan high school and will probably be accepted into an elite pre-college business program. He’s crushing on his best friend’s girl, and his best friend is kind of a dick, but otherwise Craig has a pretty good life.

Craig is also suicidal.

Anyone who thinks the first paragraph and the second ought to be mutually exclusive does not understand clinical depression—nor, necessarily, do Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer-directors of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The filmmakers set their film in a mental ward, but it’s rarely clear whether they want you to laugh or cry at its long-term residents, the sight of whom nearly scares Craig (Keir Gilchrist) sane after he talks an ER doctor into admitting him. (Doc doesn’t think his suicidal tendency is serious.) The patients stare and shuffle, shout random thoughts to no one in particular, never get out of bed. When Craig first meets them—mouth agape in horror—he asks the staff if there’s a place “for people more like me.” Cue audience laughter?

To be fair, the teenager is mildly rebuked for thinking himself better than the others; still, many of these patients are too caricaturized for you to believe they’re there for anything but a giggle. It’s rather heartbreaking—you know their real-life counterparts exist—but so is the flip side: When Craig shows up at the emergency room at 5 a.m. asking for help yet is nearly sent home because he just seems like a kid with the blues, the doctor is both throttle-worthy and completely realistic. Few people who look at Craig see someone mentally unbalanced. Those who do, including the ward’s psychiatrist (Viola Davis), stress medication and communication about the pressures he’s feeling. Even Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), the middle-aged eccentric who takes Craig under his broken wing, seems to recognize a kindred walking wounded.

Until he doesn’t, that is. As Craig adjusts to life in the ward, befriending the freaks and chatting up the cute girl (a luminous Emma Roberts), Bobby’s relative togetherness starts to unravel. Slowly, the guy with the dry humor, dating advice, and short-escape plans isn’t so smooth when he has to face life outside the hospital. Which is also believable—but then the character turns into another there’s-nothing-wrong-with-you sounding board, suggesting that a little perspective is all a suicidal teen needs to climb out of a soul-sucking depression.

The message is contradictory at best and dangerous at worst, though it seems that Boden and Fleck, the team behind the indie hits Half Nelson and Sugar, at least intended to make a life-affirming film. Just as there are aching moments, there are soaring ones, including a shoulda-been-hackneyed group performance of “Under Pressure” and a jubilant going-away party. And the topic certainly isn’t too sacred to be mined for humor. (“I want to kill myself,” Craig tells the intake staffer. “Fill this out,” she replies.) The unimpeachable highlight of the film, in fact, is Galifianakis, who’s understated and charming as the melancholy Bobby; turns out that the lower the actor dials it down, the higher his appeal.

Gilchrist, best known as the gay son in Showtime’s The United States of Tara, is rather vanilla here, as the filmmakers clearly poured their colors into supporting characters. But the story may not have worked had Craig been a stronger personality. His milquetoast demeanor is what propels the debate over exactly how much help he needs. If only the answer wasn’t so fumbled and disappointing.