It’s Kind of a Funny Story sweetens the plot

The earnest mental ward coming-of-age tale is more John Hughes than Nurse Ratched.

The writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck announced itself as one of consequence with Half Nelson, the 2006 drama that introduced Shareeka Epps and produced an Academy Award nomination for Ryan Gosling and his portrayal of a crack-addicted teacher. It was followed by the well-received Sugar, the star-free story of a Dominican baseball player recruited to the American minors.

Now the pair swings for the mainstream fences with a setting---a mental ward---that sounds more suited to its first film, but is actually an earnest coming-of-age story toeing the saucy-sweet Juno line, including animated sequences, an indie rock score, cable-minted stars and a dance number.

It begins on a literal precipice, as Craig (Keir Gilchrist from The United States of Tara) stands on a bridge, ready to jump. He relents and instead checks himself into the hospital. He relents on that decision too, but it's too late--- there's a mandatory five-day stay. The teen ward is under construction so he's up with the real crazies on the adult floor. His roommate hasn't left his bed in months. The cute girl his age (Emma Roberts) is a self-mutilating mess. The de facto leader is Zach Galifinakis.

Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, It's Kind of a Funny Story has an upper-middle-class hurdle to overcome: Craig's suicidal feelings come from academic pressure---his workaholic Dad (Jim Gaffigan) wants him to get into a prestigious summer school program. BFD. But it digs deeper, into teen depression, a problem "solved" by overmedication (Craig has already stopped taking his Zoloft). His Dad isn't around to see the problem, and his Mom (Lauren Graham, sigh) doesn't know what to do about it. So here we are.

Like September's excellent Easy A, Boden and Fleck's film is a nod to John Hughes, but the two movies diverge tonally. Where Hughes' Ringwald films are invoked directly into A's plot, Funny Story goes for a darker reading, pulling its references from the abused, depressed Breakfast Club kids. (Both feature a shot-remake homage.) Being thrust into an adult world is scary enough for a teenager, but Craig is faced with an extra level of mental illness---it's what makes him realize he's just another overdramatic teen. Adolescence will pass, but schizophrenia is for life.

The film allows Galifinakis to grow as an actor, as opposed to sticking him in his underwear and punching him in the face. His Bobby only has a few days left in the ward, and he's trying to get into a group home so he can be a better father. The movie builds a real character for him, and most of the patients, while sidestepping the usual mental-ward cliches of evil nurses and overdoses.

Gilchrist has done very fine work through both seasons of Tara as the elegant, quietly gay son of a very ill woman, and it's easy to draw parallels to his role here, though not as a detriment to either performance---he is similarly understated and gentle, except when leading the cast in a rendition of "Under Pressure," the film's riskiest set-piece, a joyous fantasy sequence that inspired applause at its Toronto film festival screening. It's a brilliant scene and a fitting thesis statement for It's Kind of a Funny Story, as Craig gets to move on while some never will: It's the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming "Let me out."

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