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Mental Health Awareness Week: an analysis of Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

This week, Monday 10th May – Sunday 16th May, has been Mental Health Awareness week and many people in the film community have been sharing their stories on their mental health, as well as representation of mental health in films. To this day, there is a shocking lack of good representation of mental health issues as most of these illnesses are instead played on for horror and comedic purposes. Today, I want to share my own story of mental health and how one film in particular, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), handles the subject matter correctly.

To begin, I want to firstly talk about my experience with mental health issues. Back in 2015 when I was 16-years-old and struggling through school with little support, no friends and losing all motivation for my studies, I was placed on anti-depressant pills. It took a whole year of failing school and taking Media Studies as a last resort to find my passion in film criticism and journalism that made me realise what my pathway would be.

By the time I was 20, I knew where I was going in life. I had finally gotten into university, I had swapped clubbing, heavy drinking and short-term long-distance relationships for a long-term relationship that I could physically appreciate, and I had started to make friends and had this website to share my thoughts on film releases and the industry. I came off my anti-depressants and I felt confident.

However, to this day I still struggle with several issues which I believe could be linked one way or another to mental health. I still have frequent panic attacks and sensory overloads, something which has actually increased over the past year. I still have moments of depression and anxiety, two things I have been trying to combat through my film journalism and podcasting to gain confidence within myself. Most people around me, family and friends, also suffer with mental health issues, whether it is anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Mental health issues is just something I have always come to know about and deal with, one step at a time.

Mental health is something that should be told more in the film industry. It feels like TV is not afraid to tell these stories and show the impact of these issues on people, and yet the film industry still uses them as tropes for comedies and horror. Whilst people criticise the exploration of mental health issues in shows such as 13 Reasons Why, we get shows such as BoJack Horseman and This is Us that tell these stories and showing them in their true form. In contrast, the film industry will use the liked of ADHD, DID (dissociative identity disorder), and psychopathic personality to either create humour or scares, giving bad representation of these issues that people do have to live with.

To this day, Silver Linings Playbook is one of my top three films of all time. I first saw the film when it released in 2012 due to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, but the film opened up so many pathways for me. This was the first film to introduce me officially to the award season, analysing every Oscar stat to see where this would rank in winning each race (and celebrating Lawrence getting an Oscar). It also opened me up to honest, raw storytelling and the impact of showing these characters can have on those who suffer with the same mental health diagnosis.

To really get a sense on how this film captures mental health issues in this honest format, it is important to look at the four main characters in this story. Each of these four performances was nominated at the Academy Awards were nominated and it is easy to see why when looking at what they have to do in the film.

Our leading character, Pat Solitano Jr. (played by Bradley Cooper), has bipolar disorder. His story is told to us through the use of dialogue and one flashback scene, but is done effectively by having him tell a therapist the main event that led to him being sent to a mental health institution. This event gives a narrative to the story, giving Pat Jr. a pathway to try and rekindle his love with his ex-wife but also a way to explore his mental health. He has triggers, particularly of his wedding song, and it is easy to connect with him and his triggers as the story writes them in so well. As an audience member, we can see what went wrong with Pat Jr. in the past, but also know that he is trying to improve himself, he is trying to learn how to live with his disorder and that he simply wants love and happiness within himself.

His father, Pat Sr. (played by Robert De Niro), is an illegal bookmaker and has relied heavily on the American football games of the Philadelphia Eagles to earn money to open his own restaurant. However, this gambling becomes an addiction for him and does not fare well in terms of his OCD, which is severe. Whilst it might seem innocent enough by having the remotes point in a specific manner to have the results go right, the OCD becomes too much when his dad becomes reliant of Pat Jr. being around him in order to create a winning game. This representation of OCD not just as a “cute” thing where you get annoyed by one detail, but over-analysing a game purely because of small factors that have no impact, feels honest and raw and gives a good insight into what it is actually like to live with OCD.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany Maxwell, a woman who is the sister-in-law of his friend Ronnie, is undiagnosed but going through a lot of trauma at the time. She has recently become a widow, but struggles with the idea of jumping into a new committed relationship and still keeps her wedding ring on. She has family issues as well, dealing with the struggle of being newly single and unhappy whilst being in the shadow of her sister who just had a baby and is happily married. Her friendship with Pat Jr. is one that helps explore both of their issues without a need to put a name to a diagnosis or what their friendship really is at the start of the film. It is healthy way of seeing people interact, getting to terms with their separate issues and being able to relate to some of their struggles without making it a punchline.

Whilst the film tells their struggles and shows their mental health issues incredibly well, one aspect of the film that I truly admire is having this also shown through the eyes of someone who isn’t diagnosed with any issues. Pat Jr’s mum, Dolores (played by Jacki Weaver), is someone who lives in the household of Pat Jr. and his dad, and yet she is the glue to the household. Many people simply stated that Weaver was Oscar nominated because she was dragged with the rest of the cast, but she really does give an incredible performance here as a mum who simply wants the best for her son. She does so much work in the house, she has to try and handle each situation and try and get the family to connect with each other, and she does so wonderfully in each situation she is given.

It is not just the characters that give us a viewpoint of these mental health issues, but the plot and certain aspects of the story. In particular, I love the impact of Pat Jr’s viewpoint of life and the importance of the word “excelsior”. Not only does it play into a plot point near the end of the film, but having this thinking of “excelsior” and trying to stay positive gives a direction for his character to go through and feels authentic to how people with mental health issues try to navigate life around them, taking things one step at a time.

There are numerous ways that people tackle their own mental health issues, and there is no right pathway for every single person. Before I went on anti-depressants, I tried seeing a therapist and for me it was not going to work out. This film shows that the system for helping people with mental health issues is far from perfect as Pat Jr. doesn’t love the therapy sessions, yet is made to turn up to them to stay out of the mental health institution. This not only shows how far we still have to go to be treated seriously and personally, but that one thing that works for someone might not work for the next person.

Finally, let’s talk about the dance aspect of the film and how that storyline really impacted me. When this film was first being made, it was going to be about professional dancers entering the race. That was not going to work, however, when they cast Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany and saw how it would look. So, they turn it into a storyline that she does it for fun instead and is looking to take part in the competition. When the parlay is planned out, they only need to score a 5.0 to win. I love that this film explores ways that people can take things that they enjoy and pursue it, regardless of how good or bad they are. The fact that every other dancer is confused about why they are happy about a 5.0 is not only hilarious, but adds to a message of the story that I love: you do not have to be perfect, but do your best and celebrate the good moments in life. If you are happy about a 5.0 in a dance competition and helping win a parlay, then that is great. Not everything has to be a competition in life, and all you need to do is be the best you and be proud of your own accomplishments.

Every time I watch Silver Linings Playbook, I discover something about it that impacts me heavily. It is a story that is impactful and tackles these hard subject matters, but does it in a way that is easy to watch and engage with, educating the audience whilst giving plenty of entertainment along the way. It is a film that has stuck with me since my first watching, and that I will continue to love and watch every single year. It is a reflection of what mental health representation should be in the industry, and what more films need to do to tell these stories.

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