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3 Movies That Actually Portray Mental Health Realistically

These three movies get the psychologist's badge of approval. Have you seen them?

Mitch / Unsplash
Source: Mitch / Unsplash

Have you ever started watching a film hoping it would capture the reality of mental health struggles, only to feel let down by Hollywood’s glossed-over portrayals? Far too often, movies sensationalize, trivialize, or outright misrepresent the complex realities of living with psychological issues. However, if you know where to look, there are some cinematic gems that break away from stereotypes to authentically depict the human experience.

While we hope for a day when such realistic portrayals become the industry standard, these three films offer a glimpse into what it’s truly like to live with mental health issues. Beyond their brilliant production and narratives, these movies also showcase something refreshing: the raw, bitter-sweet, and gut-wrenching reality of everyday problems.

1. The Father (2020)

The Father is a poignant drama that delves into the complexities of dementia and its impact on relationships. The story is told from the perspective of a father with dementia, creating a disorienting and immersive experience for the audience. As his memory deteriorates, the film navigates his shifting perceptions of time, place, and people—gloomily blurring the lines between reality and imagination.

Trivialized portrayals of Alzheimer’s and dementia often resort to stereotypes and oversimplifications that misrepresent the true nature of the condition. These depictions typically present dementia as a simple case of memory loss or confusion and reduce its complex behavioral patterns to mere forgetfulness. Patients are frequently portrayed as absent-minded elderly individuals who become the subject of light-hearted humor or plot devices.

In contrast, real research on dementia and Alzheimer’s showcases the awful and dynamic nature of the condition—characterized by progressive cognitive decline, impaired reasoning, disorientation, and personality changes. Such studies highlight the profound emotional and psychological impact on patients and their caregivers, with implications for long-term care, legal decisions, and end-of-life planning.

The Father stands out as a film that accurately portrays the realities of dementia—one of the leading causes of death in the US—without reducing it to a single trope. It is lauded for its sensitive and honest portrayal of the impact of dementia on both individuals and their families, offering a gritty and realistic depiction of the condition’s challenges. This authenticity is why it is a must-watch; it transcends trivialization to offer a realistic portrayal that educates and evokes empathy.

2. Beautiful Boy (2018)

Beautiful Boy is a biographical drama that portrays the devastating impact of drug addiction on a family. The story follows a father as he navigates the challenges of parenting his teenage son, who becomes addicted to methamphetamine. As he cycles through periods of sobriety and relapse, the film illustrates the tension between a father’s hope and despair—as well as the profound love and heartbreak that arise from watching a loved one battle addiction.

Portrayals of addiction in film often present an exaggerated and distorted view of substance abuse and recovery. Addiction is frequently depicted as extreme and sensational, with dramatic scenes of overdose, criminal activity, and violent behavior. These kinds of films tend to focus on the most extreme aspects of addiction, often ignoring the underlying factors that lead to substance abuse. Recovery is also often depicted as a simple, linear process, which egregiously downplays the complex and long-term nature of overcoming addiction.

In reality, research on addiction reveals that it is a chronic and relapsing condition influenced by a variety of factors. It involves not only the physiological dependence on a substance but also the psychological and behavioral patterns that reinforce addictive behavior. Recovery from addiction is almost always a long journey with setbacks and relapses and requires ongoing support, therapy, and commitment.

What makes Beautiful Boy stand out is its focus on the human aspect of addiction—the struggles and setbacks without glorification or sensationalism. It’s a realistic and compassionate depiction of addiction and its impact on family dynamics that resonates with many. Through its unrefined and heartfelt storytelling, it manages to depict what recovery truly looks like, the support systems that are vital for healing, and the enduring bond between father and son.

3. Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is a compelling drama that explores themes of grief, loss, and family dynamics. The film follows a man grappling with an inexplicable personal tragedy and the burden of unresolved grief. Through an additional unexpected tragedy, responsibility forces him to confront his painful past and the events that led to his self-imposed isolation.

Dramatized portrayals of grief present the experience through a series of exaggerated emotions and dramatic scenes, emphasizing heightened expressions of sadness, anger, or catharsis. These depictions tend to follow a linear progression through the “stages of grief,” suggesting that grief has a clear timeline and that individuals eventually find closure or resolution in a tidy fashion. This severely minimizes the complexity and unpredictability of grief and reduces it to a narrative device that ultimately serves the story’s emotional arc.

However, research on grief proves it to be a deeply personal and nonlinear experience. It’s not just a progression of stages but a complicated mix of emotions and reactions that vary from person to person. It encompasses ebbs and flows of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, guilt, longing and isolation. Many studies indicate that grief can persist for years, with individuals experiencing periods of intense emotion followed by moments of calm, only for the grief to resurface unexpectedly.

What sets Manchester by the Sea apart is its raw and realistic depiction of grief. It does not shy away from the darker, challenging, and unexpected aspects of mourning. It is acclaimed for its honest depiction of grief and the complex emotions that accompany profound loss. The gut-wrenching performances and delicate storytelling illustrate the diverse impacts of trauma, the enduring ties of family, and the journey toward acceptance and forgiveness.

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