Some movies dare to dive into the human mind, in all its intricate layers. Besides being entertainment, cinema sparks conversations about real-world issues, including mental health. Films can give us intimate views of the human psyche and help us reimagine our own journeys toward improving our emotional well-being. Here are a few movies and series that touch on mental health in worthwhile ways.
“tick, tick…BOOM!” (2021). Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Watch on Netflix.
Amid its dazzling musical numbers and show-stopping cast, “tick, tick…BOOM!” manages to tell a gripping and honest story about the mental struggles that often accompany “following your dreams.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of the original musical by Jonathan Larson draws from Larson’s own life as an aspiring composer frantically trying to make his way to theater stardom. Andrew Garfield’s performance as Larson is breathtaking, fully capturing the anxiety, obsession and grief Larson faced throughout his creative journey. The film’s treatment of mental health is refreshingly truthful: we see Larson’s obsessions shatter his relationships and everyday life. The film frames the process of improving one’s mental health as a lifelong journey, strengthened by community. Despite the over-the-top (and incredibly catchy) soundtrack, at its core, “tick, tick…BOOM!” is a story of resilience and the harsh reality artists face when pursuing their passions.
“A Silent Voice” (2016). Directed by Naoko Yamada. Watch on Netflix.
“A Silent Voice” is a stunning Japanese animated film that follows Shoya Ishida, a teen outcast who tries to reconcile and befriend a deaf girl whom he bullied many years ago. It portrays difficult topics such as isolation and suicide but addresses them with empathy. This delicate but honest handling of mental health is brought to life by the film’s art style: graceful animation mixed with an intimate use of bright colors. It effectively depicts the overwhelming loneliness and catastrophizing mindsets that can emerge from bullying and childhood trauma. Outside of its dark subject matter, “A Silent Voice” is a movie that focuses on a positive journey and portrays all its characters with emotional complexity. As the movie goes on, it unfolds as a beautifully animated slice-of-life, with Ishida gradually growing in friendship and hope. The relationship that blossoms between outcast Ishida and his deaf friend Nishimiya is heartwarming. It becomes an amazing example of how people can reconnect and support each other after facing mental health struggles.
“Bo Burnham: Inside” (2021). Directed by Bo Burnham. Watch on Netflix.
Bo Burnham’s Netflix special “Inside” goes beyond the comedian’s typical repertoire, becoming an anthem of the modern generation’s mental state. Dark, hilarious and heartbreaking, this is Burnham at his best — a work written, shot and performed by him alone, yet perfectly encapsulating the loneliness and neuroticism that has haunted so many people during the pandemic. In Burnham’s isolated stand-up and comedic songs, he depicts the effects of the internet and quarantine on mental health with incredible humor and showmanship. While at times morbid, “Inside” is honest and deeply moving. Unforgettable songs like “Welcome to the Internet” expose the chaos of having the “whole world at your fingertips,” while songs like “All Eyes on Me” blur the worlds of parasocial and genuine human empathy. Half a comic fever dream and half a beautiful contemplation on mental health, “Inside” is a must-watch special that touches on deeply human experiences. It reveals the darkness of the modern world, forcing us to reconsider our own understanding of mental health and the dangers of the emotional isolation we can trap ourselves in.
“Inside Out” (2015). Directed by Pete Docter. Watch on Disney+.
Pixar’s “Inside Out” is a whimsical adventure into the psyche, following Joy, Sadness and other personified emotions who live inside Riley’s young mind. While this movie is not an accurate depiction of the actual internal processes of the mind — sadly, our brains do not have a bunch of colorful humanoid emotions running them — the mental health journeys of the characters feel real. Riley’s turbulent experiences of missing her hometown and facing her strange new environment are portrayed realistically, and her story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Joy’s and Sadness’ character dynamics are delightfully entertaining and equally inspiring. The two emotions get lost in Riley’s brain and try to save her while realizing that every emotion matters and is valid. “Inside Out” is an incredibly uplifting movie that is sure to make any viewer grow in care for their own emotional well-being.
“Encanto” (2021). Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard. Watch on Disney+.
While “Encanto” is a colorful Pixar film about a mystical family household, it also manages to share some complex messages about self-worth and improving one’s mental health through community. “Encanto” explores the mental strain that comes with living up to your family’s expectations through the story of Mirabel, a teenage girl trying to find her place in a family where everyone has a supernatural ability, except her. Mirabel is charming and relatable, and I found myself sympathizing with her struggles to not disappoint her family legacy. Her portrayal is earnest and entertaining, an accurate example of how mental health can be challenged by the expectations placed on us. On top of a poignant storyline that addresses complex themes of generational trauma, “Encanto” also has gorgeous animation, stellar performances, whimsical musical numbers and an aesthetic rooted in Colombian culture and literature. It is a delightful film that imparts lessons about acceptance and family that viewers of any age can appreciate.
“The Queen’s Gambit” (2021). Directed by Scott Frank. Watch on Netflix.
More than just a show about chess, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a provocative character study that explores a character who is locked in a match with inner demons: loneliness, obsession and addiction. Based on a book of the same title, this Netflix miniseries won 11 Emmy Awards and is celebrated for vivid period storytelling and intelligent writing. The show’s nuance is evident in how it tackles its protagonist’s relationship with drugs and alcohol. In the show, we watch Beth Harmon, an orphan, rise through the ranks of the chess world. We get an intimate view of her inner life, including her struggles with trauma and substance abuse that begin at a young age. “The Queen’s Gambit” shows the brutal hold that addiction has on Harmon throughout her life and how it affects her career, relationships and self-confidence. Yet, the series does not turn Harmon into a one-dimensional character but instead acknowledges the pressures she is under as a woman pushing past sexism in a male-dominated sport. Overall, it is an incredible show that doesn’t hold back from venturing into the mind of a troubled but brilliant character.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.