My coworkers and I have an ongoing conversation about movies, mostly because movies are a go-to activity for helping our students manage academic downtime without getting too energetic (high energy in a classroom for students with emotional and behavioral disorders invariably leads to chaos). Consequently, we often discuss all the movies that our students have demanded we watch with them (like most teenagers, our students don’t have the best taste in movies), and we have varying opinions about the quality. While I have a reputation amongst my friends of being pretty easy to please when it comes to movies (I think the first question I ask after seeing a movie is, “Was it fun?”; my second question after that, if it wasn’t fun, is, “Will I have fun tearing it apart?”), there’s kind of an ongoing joke amongst my coworkers that I’ll find something wrong with any movie I see, and then I’ll complain about it vociferously (sadly this is pretty easy when a major element of any critique I offer has a feminist bent to it). Conversely, I have one coworker who I don’t think has ever complained about a movie he’s seen, even if he picked it up out of the five dollar bin at 2nd & Charles.
Despite all that, we still enjoy talking about movies, and one of the movies that came up in the last year was Silver Linings Playbook. I’d heard some buzz about this movie before, but when my coworker mentioned that it’s actually a movie about adults with emotional and behavioral disorders, I decided that I would give it a look. It took me about five months to get around to it, but I’ve finally watched it, and I can say honestly that it’s pretty good. As a representation of the kinds of things that I’ve observed my students deal with on a regular basis, it’s pretty accurate (I couldn’t stop laughing at the conversation between the main characters Pat and Tiffany about what mood stabilizing medications they’ve taken; I recognized more than a few of those names from overhearing similar conversations among my students).
This is an incredibly messy movie with a large cast of characters who all have major issues that they’re trying to work through in haphazard ways, and the one thing that kept hitting me was how the story, for the most part, doesn’t give any trite answers about how to deal with this stuff. Pat, the protagonist, is just coming out of a stint in a residential hospital after he nearly beat a man to death, and much of the film revolves around him working through how he’s going to handle the challenges of having bipolar disorder in a less structured environment. His parents, particularly his father, have hangups of their own that complicate his plans (he spends much of the film obsessing over how he’s going to prove to his estranged wife that he’s ready to handle their relationship again) and the tensions that arise from pitting people with very different goals (and ways of handling frustration) against each other are really well done.
The only thing about the movie that I really have any complaints about is the ending. I know that humans have an affinity for creating stories with clear arcs that make a sort of narrative sense. You want to be able to end a story in a place where it’s okay to walk away and not worry that everything will be alright, and in pretty much every way you could imagine, Silver Linings Playbook does that. Pat and Tiffany decide that they do love each other and get together, Pat repairs his relationship with his dad, and we get all the signifiers that say Pat is doing well with his therapy and will ultimately be able to recover from this one traumatic episode in his life. It’s (forgive the pun) a very pat ending.
The problem is that chronic mental illness doesn’t work like that. Pat has bipolar disorder, and Tiffany also has an emotional behavioral disorder (it’s never specified in the movie, and I’m not qualified to make an armchair diagnosis), and these are not things that a person simply gets over. Yes, it’s good that Pat’s therapy is working for him at the end, and he seems to have let go of his obsession with his ex, but that’s not an assurance that his life will be great or that his biggest challenges are behind him. Pat and Tiffany’s lives are hard, and it feels like a bit of a disservice for the movie to not acknowledge that at its end. That doesn’t mean they can’t have triumphs; the elation they feel after receiving their scores at the dance competition is totally earned, and I really empathized with them in that moment, but I couldn’t help getting the feeling that the moment was being sold as some kind of panacea for their problems largely because the movie was running down and needed to wrap up its plot in a way that left the audience satisfied enough to walk away from the characters. You don’t get that in real life, and when it comes to issues like mental illness, it feels like a disservice to continue to sell the myth that you do.