Title: It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Anna Boden
Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a comedy about a neurotic and perhaps mildly depressed teenager who inadvertently commits himself to an adult psychiatric ward, and learns What’s Really Important through his interactions with its significantly more troubled denizens. It is, in other words, a wacky-quirky-crazy-people-teach-lessons movie. Which ordinarily would be an instant dealbreaker. But so help me, I dug nearly every minute of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which navigates the pitfalls of its subgenre with remarkable aplomb. On paper, I hate this movie; in reality, it’s funny, blithe, and sneakily touching.
The directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, build their reputation on Half Nelson and Sugar, low-key, well-regarded social realist dramas. Funny Story, which bears little relation to any reality I know, is a departure — mass-audience-friendly, if not quite commercial, and mostly content with being a variation on a tried-and-true formula. What’s encouraging is the facility Fleck and Boden display with pop conventions. Even at its most familiar — as during a musical fantasy sequence set to “Under Pressure,” meant to illustrate the protagonist’s discovery of previously unknown talents through loss of inhibition — the movie snaps and crackles.
Before he lets fly with some David Bowie, Craig (Keir Gilchrist) bikes to the emergency room after aborting a Brooklyn Bridge suicide attempt. He insists he’s a danger to himself and demands treatment. The cause: stress, pressure, expectations; overachieving friends and overbearing parents. Ordinary facts of teenage life that seem to have brought this teenager dangerously close to the edge.
In what was probably a miscalculation, this part of the film is handled with cheerful insouciance: we never feel like Craig was in any serious trouble, and the stakes seem low from the very beginning. The tone begins to make more sense once Craig, getting more than he bargained for when the kindly on-duty psychiatrist (Viola Davis) tells him he’s stuck in the loony bin for 5 days, minimum, meets his fellow patients. There’s Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis, who had earlier greeted Craig as an emergency room doctor; a pretty girl with a penchant for cutting herself (Emma Roberts); a Turkish roommate who never gets out of bed; and so forth.
Bobby takes the shy, tentative Craig under his wing, which Craig will of course reciprocate when Bobby’s own problems come to the fore. Everyone’s mostly nice. The movie has little interest in making the supporting cast objects of pity; they are, for the most part, just folks with (admittedly stylized) problems. The messaging is similarly low-key. Craig doesn’t have any earth-shattering moments of revelation; he just learns to chill out a little, and live with himself. It’s not plausible, exactly, but it makes sense. The solution might be farfetched, but the problem feels universal.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story isn’t cloying, or condescending, or enamored of its perceived quirky originality. Fleck and Boden get a wonderfully subtle, unsentimental lead performance from 17-year old Keir Gilchrist, whom you should keep an eye on, and a solid, surprisingly controlled supporting turn from Galifianakis. The film’s funny, good-natured and engaging. It’s easy to see why the reviews out of Toronto were unkind — this is easily cast as trivial stuff. But I think its easygoing charm has a lot to recommend it.