Oscar Films ‘Empire of Light,’ ‘The Whale,’ ‘The Son’ Tackle Mental Issues Head On

Sometimes hard truths must be faced: We’re experiencing a global mental health crisis. “Over the last two years alone, we’ve seen a 50% increase in teens appearing at emergency rooms with suicidal intent in this country,” says Darcy Gruttadaro of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

 Let that sink in because the subject of depression and other mental disorders is also flooding our movies, from “The Son,”  “The Whale,” and “Corsage,” to “Aftersun,” “The Fabelmans” and “Empire of Light.” These screenplays dare to explore how individuals and families cope — or spiral downward.

In Florian Zeller’s “The Son,” divorced couple Peter and Kate (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern) confront a Solomonic choice: After their teen Nicholas (Zen McGrath) attempts suicide, his doctors at the mental ward urge the parents to leave the boy under their care. Nicholas begs them to take him home, making promises they want to believe are true. Their decision will rock their upper-middle-class world. That choice in the screenplay, adapted by Christopher Hampton, has also divided audiences, while it has stirred confessions by families that have experienced this heartache.

Zeller realized that he’d hit a raw nerve when the story was still a play. He noticed that the Parisian audience waited at the stage door to share stories not snag autographs. It surprised him “that people were waiting after every performance to tell their own story. ‘I know what you’re talking about because my uncle, my sister…’”

This connection between his audience and Zeller, who’s convinced that “tragedy is preventable,” compels the filmmaker. “So many people have experienced this as parents, have felt their powerlessness … but I also feel that there is so much ignorance, shame, guilt and denial. I really wanted to make that film to open a conversation.”   

He noted one of the common misconceptions is that when a parent perceives that their kids have black ideas, they’re reticent to plant the seed and mention suicidal ideation. Consulting with NAMI, Zeller discovered that “the opposite is true. Ask clear questions, even if it seems counterintuitive. We need to accept mental health issues as we would do physical illness. If a friend had cancer, you would say I’m here for you, not blame them for their malady.”

Additionally, family members are often ill-equipped to deal with intergenerational trauma. That’s the case in “The Whale,” which Sam Hunter adapted from his play. It’s about a 600-lb. reclusive Idaho-based teacher, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) before he eats himself to death.

“Charlie’s a deeply sensitive guy who had a dramatic life event that sent him spiraling,” says Hunter, referring to the tragic death of the male lover for whom he left his wife and daughter. “Only when Charlie faces his mortality does he realize he has to be a parent to his daughter… Subconsciously or consciously, he’s protecting her from himself but, in so doing, exacerbated the problem. As a parent, he doesn’t want her to see him in a negative perspective and he wants to control the world on her behalf.” 

Hunter’s empathy for Charlie is embedded in his personal experience. “I had some absolutely miserable years as a gay kid in Idaho, a big kid. It made living in the world so hard.” 

The graphic scene in which the hero-on-the-verge-of-heart-failure binge eats is horrifying and twins with the writer’s youthful eating disorders. “In my darkest moment, I would self-medicate with food. It was comfort and solace… Charlie’s a humanist with a huge heart. But I had to be honest about the darker stuff, too, and not shy away. Like any human being the light and the dark are right next to each other.”

An apparent eating disorder is also symptomatic of the depression Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) experiences in Marie Kreutzer’s creative biopic “Corsage.” The title refers to the French for corset or bodice, which represents the restrictions under which she lives. That undergarment squeezing her breath to a state of anxiety, and necessitating an infinitesimal waistline, has become increasingly challenging as she turns 40 in 1877. 

“’It’s when you’re turning 40, you’re disappearing,’” the writer-director paraphrases a statement by Elisabeth. She’s struggling with body and beauty issues, lonely and depressed. Alienated from her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I, she’s frightened of the physical risks of another pregnancy in an era without contraception. She’s also testing her relationship with her youngest daughter who now feels obligated to become the parent to the increasingly disobedient mother.

Elisabeth’s ambivalent about losing what she has had, says Kreutzer: “Her being able to influence people and to attract them was her main currency.” As the empress ages, maintaining appearances becomes harder physically and mentally. “She’s used to playing a game and meeting expectations. But, of course, she hates it. She disliked it when people looked at her, which they did all the time. People liked to observe her, and found her beautiful and interesting. But many of them didn’t really like her, because she was different.”

This sense that she’s not seen as a person, but as a royal prop, contributes to her unhappiness. Elisabeth makes the ultimate personal choice: jumping overboard.  Her suicide is a bold statement, triumph of agency over reactivity. (In historical fact, she was the victim of political assassination at 60.) Fictionally, she has no more fucks to give, which makes her a very modern heroine.

Once recognized, the depression theme winds through many of the season’s best scripts. Writer-director Charlotte Wells’ break-out “Aftersun” had me weeping buckets. It unravels the sun-splashed final vacation taken by a divorced father on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Calum (Paul Mescal), and his beloved little girl Sophie (Frankie Corio). Two decades later, adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now a mother herself, tries to piece together the contradiction between their closeness and joy, and her father’s tragic inability to control and contain his sorrow, no matter the self-help books he reads or Tai Chi he practices. 

We see it in “The Fabelmans,” where the free-spirited Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), mother to Steven Spielberg’s alter-ego Sammy (first Mateo Zoryan, then Gabriel LaBelle), goes undiagnosed. If I had a prescription pad, I’d say she’s bipolar, something particularly manifest in the “Twister” scene where Mitzi chauffeurs her traumatized kids, chasing a tornado. The movie’s Achilles Heel is that it’s not Mitzi’s movie but Sammy’s; it lacks the emotional gut punch to the hero, with Spielberg and co-screenwriter Tony Kushner dodging the darker side of the mother-son connection.

It’s clearer in writer-director Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light.” Olivia Colman’s movie theater employee Hilary is unequivocally bipolar. Examining her medicine chest, she stares down the lithium that leaves her feeling “numb” and dims her sparkle. When she goes off her meds, her spiral is inevitable, self-destructive and brutally honest, animated by another daring Colman performance. 

Depression and its sticky web of relationships past and present are a hard reality to address. Returning to “The Son,” Zeller tells Variety it was drawn from personal experience. “The fact that I want the film to open the conversation, not to shy away from that, trying to answer with honesty. It comes from personal experience as a father. It was emotions I wanted to share, and experiences I went through, and hopefully it didn’t end the way it did in the film. This is what art can provide. When you go through it, you feel like
you’re alone. We’re all on the same boat — humanity.” 

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