David O. Russell is up for an Oscar for 'Silver Linings Playbook.' / Matt Sayles, Invision, via AP
David O. Russell's hit film, Silver Linings Playbook, was originally a gift for his son, Matthew, 18, who has bipolar disorder.
But with eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and all four acting categories, the film has also become a gift for the mental health community.
Although one in four Americans lives with mental illness, too often the media spotlight is on violent tragedies like the Newtown school massacre or the Aurora theater shootings. By creating a film about a family living with mental illness, Russell has recast bipolar disorder in a warmer light, offsetting the stigma that haunts patients and families.
"I wanted to treat the characters as humanly as possible. I want people to feel the humanity of the characters," Russell says.
Bradley Cooper's character, Pat, has bipolar disorder, but "Pat's not the only one with issues," Russell says. "His father has OCD. The girlfriend has issues, the sister-in-law has issues. Even his best friend has issues. All the characters are grappling with something. I wanted to show that we're all in this together."
The movie handles a difficult subject sensitively, say advocates for the mentally ill.
"Making a film about mental illness is tricky: It can sensationalize, trivialize or exploit it," says Katrina Gay, director of communications at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). "But Silver Linings Playbook not only entertains us, it shows us how alike we all really are. The characters are quirky and likable. This film allows the audience to relate to the characters and the story. It's way more effective than a campaign or banner project," she says.
Russell notes that his son "was very volatile and unpredictable. Like everything would be going great, and then suddenly, he'd explode, there would be lots of tears and (his mother and I) wouldn't know why or how to control it," he says. "But no one feels worse about it than they do when they snap out of it and realize what's happened; they're so sorry and humbled."
When Matthew was 12, Russell put him in Devereux Glenholme School, a boarding school that specializes in children with mental disorders.
"It was the hardest decision I ever made, but it has changed his life," he says. "At school there's a whole behavioral structure and program that he sticks to every day. But I know that the school is a protective environment, and one day he'll have to step out into the real world, and I worry about that. So I made this film for him. I want him to know that he's a part of this world. We're all part of it."
Russell's son even has a small part in the film, playing a nosy neighbor kid with a video camera, who wants to interview Pat for a school project on mental illness.
Matthew Quick, the author of the best-selling novel that's the basis for the film, says writing helped him open up about his own battle with depression. "I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood outside Philadelphia, and no one talked about mental health issues or even said the word depression," he says. "It wasn't until I started writing the novel that I started talking about myself."
Quick worked in the mental health community for years and is no stranger to negative reactions to the mentally ill. "I worked with teens with severe autism, and I'd bring maybe 10 or 12 of them to Pizza Hut, and the room would clear out in minutes," he says. "I'd get so mad. But you can't blame society, because the perception of mental health is based on ignorance, not hate or ill will."
Simply talking about mental illness is the most powerful remedy for stigma, says Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI.
"If someone has a heart attack and they're lying on the sidewalk, people come to help. If someone goes psychotic, people scatter. We, as a society, need to do better than that," he says. "But think about cancer in the '50s when no one talked about it. Now it's part of public discourse. Research shows that we are making that same progress with mental illness."
Since the success of the book and the film, Quick has had an outpouring of people sharing their own stories.
"I've heard from people who have said that the book made them realize they need meds and therapy, and that the book made them feel hopeful about their situations," he says. "Playbook gives people a safe place to start the conversation about mental illness. Pat and his struggles invite people to be more willing to spend time with someone that is part of the mental health community. Pat has become that symbol, a hero, in that sense."
Russell has had similar positive reactions. "I've had people tell me that the film helped them to see someone they know differently, see themselves differently," he says. "I think storytelling does what medicine can't do, which is to reach out to people and help them feel human, to look at their own prejudices and to branch out."
There's a silver lining to having mental illness, too, says Quick. "The way our brains are wired creates problems, but they can also create beautiful things."
"If I didn't have depressive episodes, I wouldn't be a novelist. When I wrote this book, I had been living in my in-laws' basement for two years. I was unemployed and felt very alone. I hope this book helps people feel less alone, too. I hope that there will be more chances to open up more dialogues about mental illness, so with this book and the movie, that can only help the cause."
In the movie, when Pat returns home from the mental institution, he's released to the care of his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro). He has a very specific plan to put the pieces of his life back together, get his estranged wife back, and then he thinks he'll be happy.
Not everything goes according to plan. But, as the film shows, sometimes there's a silver lining, and what (and who) you end up with is better.
"Our son is doing well. It's always a challenge. It's one step at a time. You just have to keep moving forward and believe in yourself," says Russell.
"My son taught me that."
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