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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

I had mixed feelings about It’s Kind of a Funny Story, directed by Half Nelson and Sugar directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. They were so mixed, in fact, that I ended up doing something I’ve never done at a fest before — I saw the film twice, once at a P&I screening and once at its public premiere.

I found that the film played very differently to the two audiences, which is interesting to ponder, because I then also have to consider how much of my own emotional response to the film was affected by the vibe in the room when I saw it, and then attempt to dissect that influence out of the mix in order to be as fair as I possibly can in critiquing it.

So here’s the thing … or rather, here are several things to consider about It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

First, the film is adapted off a book by Ned Vizzini, which in turn was based off Vizzini’s own experience being briefly hospitalized for depression. So while my own initial reaction to certain aspects of the film was that it makes a little light of teenage stress, depression, and suicide, if the story is based on Vizzini’s own experiences, who am I to invalidate them?

On the other hand, my best friend committed suicide when I was 16, and I’ve gone through bouts of severe depression myself, so my sense of humor — or tolerance for dark humor — about the subject may be somewhat skewed in a way that the average moviegoer’s may not be, but I can’t just wipe away my own experiences and have them not influence my emotional reaction to certain aspects of the film.

I very much like and respect Boden and Fleck as filmmakers, and I loved both Half Nelson and Sugar, which is the kind of work I tend to think of them making; this film felt to me to be far more commercial than their previous work, and the first time around it felt a bit jarring, like when you love an obscure indie band for their first two albums and their third album is unexpectedly more radio-friendly and mainstream; it’s not that the latter effort isn’t perfectly fine, even good, per se … just different than what you’ve come to expect of them, if that makes sense.

So, taking all those things under consideration, I went into my second viewing of the film with as open a mind as possible, and with more of an eye to seeing the things I think of when I think of Boden and Fleck in the film: beautiful cinematography; tight, smart editing choices; interesting performances directed in unexpected ways that resonate and feel real. And all those things are, to a large extent, present and accounted for in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which I did like much better for seeing it a second time around.

The film centers around Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a suicidally depressed teen who checks himself into the psych ward. Because renovations are being done in the teen psych ward, the teens are being housed with the adults, which is how Craig happens to meet fellow patient Bobby (Zack Galifianakis), who kind of becomes Craig’s mental ward mentor, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), another teen patient.

Craig’s committed for five days, and over the course of those days he gets a new outlook on life; this aspect of the film I found a bit trite the first time around, and I suspect someone knew that’s what we’d be thinking at that point because the film ends with a voiceover saying something like “you probably think it’s a bit unrealistic that in five days I was healed of my suicidal depression …”

Well, yeah, we do, but at the same time I have to also acknowledge that when you are a teenager, things that might seem small, even unreasonable to adults look entirely different to you. A fight with a best friend or a big exam can feel huge and even earth-shattering; on top of that, teens today are terribly pressured to “succeed” in a way that I never felt to that extent when I was that age.

Kids are pushed by parents and teachers, and they push themselves because we have so completely sold them on the idea that you “have” to have these particular things, these particular accomplishments, a degree from a prestigious school, in order to have a happy life as an adult. In New York City, it’s competitive to get into the “right” preschool. And all of this, of course, is complete bullshit.

I don’t know of any study that shows an actual correlation between your degree of happiness as an adult and whether you went to a prestigious private college versus your state university. The truth is, you can be happy or unhappy as an adult regardless of how many extra-curricular activities you did in high school, or how high your SAT score was, or how many awards you got. Happiness — real happiness — has very little to do with any of those things, but we continue to sell our young people on the idea that it does, nonetheless. And then we wonder why teens are stressed out and taking anti-depressants and needing therapy and committing suicide. It’s just crazy stupid.

So is it plausible that a kid like Craig could feel so pressured by parents and school and the need to achieve that he would be depressed and suicidal? Yes, absolutely. Is it also plausible that five days in the psych ward would, if not heal him completely, at least give him a different perspective? Yes, it is.

It’s also reasonable to posit that five days out of the pressure cooker of his life might gave Craig some perspective that would decrease his desire to take his own life. The film doesn’t show us how well Craig holds up when he, like the proverbial lobster, is thrown back into the pot, because it’s just about those five days in 3 North, the psych unit. He now has coping mechanisms, but it’s still up to him to choose to use them.

Although this film is a big departure stylistically for Boden and Fleck, you can see where they are trying to bring much the same sensibility to the direction of It’s Kind of a Funny Story that they brought to Half Nelson and Sugar. They seem to be trying to blend indie artistry with mainstream sensibility, aiming for that “Fox Searchlight sweet spot,” and for the most part, I actually expect it will play generally fine with mainstream moviegoers. Boden and Fleck are generally thought of as more artsy directors by the critical set, so perhaps that’s part of the problem with how it’s been received critically.

I wouldn’t say It’s Kind of a Funny Story is my favorite film from Boden and Fleck, but it’s a long way off from being the worst film of the year, or even the worst film of this fest. If we were doing a critics chart for TIFF, I’d give it a yellow. They have some missteps and plot potholes in there, but there are enough laughs, and the lead performances are strong enough, that it still plays well for the right audience.

Here’s hoping they find it.

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2 Responses to “TIFF Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

  1. Kalayaan says:

    Your review is spot on, and says everything I’d want to about the source material, Boden/Fleck’s handling of it, what adults consider trivial problems – teens & even younger children consider worth killing themselves, the effect of early annointment as “critical indie darlings” who then suffer the anger of those critics who feel betrayed with disappointment.

    I saw the film with a friend whose close family member was a teen suicide and asked if it made too light of the subject. The answer was no – it was deadly serious, but sometimes you were so sad/depressed you had to laugh, like gallows humor.

    I can say that the ward & patients in the movie weren’t that different from the ward I was in (my roommate also never left our room) even if some were exaggerated. There were, however, no acid-tripped Hassidic Jews, Bobbys, or adult Craigs/Noelles. I’m bipolar. Once, my psychiatrist recommended I commit myself voluntarily for a 72-hour observation. What nobody told me is once I signed myself in, only a doctor could sign me out – even though I thought it was my voluntary choice & I could leave when I wanted. My stay could also be extended w/o my consent. I learned many things during my stay – such as I never want to be in a situation again where I don’t have control over my freedom of movement, and structure really is good/helpful for me.

    I went to the premiere; if the audience response is anything to go by, and some comments on the scathing reviews are not plants by Focus Features – the movie will play well to the audience the SlashFilm/Collider video review calls teens/youth who are going through the same thing. And those of us (I’m 57 y.o. woman) who remember going through the same thing, or are still going through something similar albeit from more mature experiences. And that’s a lot of people.

    Others don’t have to take my word for the positive response from the premiere audience: USA Today’s Claudia Puig talked about the enthusiastic “audience’s exuberant reaction to the film,” and how after the “rendition of ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen & David Bowie, the movie audience burst into applause.”

    This young blogger gave it A-:

    Another young blogger raved about it as well.

    and so did this blogger: (

    “Thousands of first-nights roared with delight. It’s a delicate theme, but the audience, mostly 20-somethings, found great relevance in a story about coping with the 21st century.”

  2. i heard a lot about that in the last few weeks and i imagine it might be true. Eventhough i believe everyone is responsible for himself. Just my two cents…

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon