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It's Kind of a Funny Story: Heart-warming lessons from a nervous breakdown

Zach Galifianakis (left) and Keir Gilchrist (right) in a scene from It's Kind of a Funny Story

K.C. Bailey/Focus Features

2 out of 4 stars


First reaction to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's new teen psychiatric movie is that it might be called It's Kind of a Thin Movie. The film follows 16-year-old Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist), a bright, stressed student who enters a Brooklyn psychiatric hospital for five days, bonds with an older patient (Zach Galifianakis) and starts a romance with a girl (Emma Roberts), and realizes his problems aren't so bad. Talk about the long road to recovery.

At least the filmmakers can't be accused of resting on their laurels. The pair's previous smart, hard-nosed dramas were Half Nelson, which starred Ryan Gosling in an Oscar-nominated performance as a drug-addicted junior-high teacher, and Sugar, about a Dominican baseball prospect who gets lost in the American minor-league system. Neither made much money, but the two films set the filmmakers up for something larger, with a bigger budget and expectations for higher ambitions than are shown here.

Unexpectedly, Boden and Fleck have exchanged tough social realism for chatty first-person ruminations and imaginative flights of fancy that feel like The Catcher in the Rye reimagined by John Hughes.

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The film begins on the morning that Craig - in love with his best friend's girlfriend, fretting about getting into an elite summer school for future executives, and having tossed out his meds - is struggling with fantasies of throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead, he sensibly checks himself into a Brooklyn hospital emergency department. He's subsequently surprised to discover he's in for a minimum five-day stay, and because the youth ward is temporarily closed, he has to stay with the adults.

Scary? Not for a moment. The fellow patients are portrayed as more colourful ethnic pageantry than psychological distress. One African-American man (Lou Myers) walks about the clinic shouting prophetically, "It'll come to you." An acid-casualty Hassidic Jew, Solomon (Daniel London), complains of loud noise, and Craig's roommate, an Egyptian man (Bernard White), sleeps all day.

The psych ward turns out to be an opportunity for bonding and self-affirmations: Craig discovers he can sing and draw. The constant use of voiceover, freeze frames and a too-cute fantasy sequence, in which the entire ward performs the David Bowie-Queen collaboration Under Pressure, just feels way too eager to please.

While the other characters on the ward provide the kooky backdrop, Craig soon bonds with the two relatively adjusted folks, the older Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and Noelle (Emma Roberts), a pretty girl his own age. The charismatic, rumpled Bobby (a tame version of Jack Nicholson's Randall Murphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is unemployed and estranged from his family, but he soon becomes Craig's guide and partner in harmless acts of rebellion, including dressing up as a doctor to leave the ward from time to time.

Galifianakis's performance is toned down from his usual comic bluster, but he steals the movie by default. The nominal protagonist, Gilchrist ( The United States of Tara), barely registers. Emma Roberts's character, Noelle, has lots of presence but no context. She's a pretty girl with a bad habit of cutting herself but otherwise seems precociously mature. Rounding out the cast is Viola Davis as the ward's shrink, Dr. Eden Minerva, dolling out saintly wisdom that helps Craig discover his inner artist.

The movie skitters across the surface of its potentially tragic subject, dishing out moments of whimsy and poignancy, like a short course of intelligence-numbing anti-depressants: Though it may make you feel temporarily better, it's probably not worth the icky aftertaste.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

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  • Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
  • Starring Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis
  • Classification: 14A

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