As society has taken a stance to better understand mental health, with more acceptance and open discussions in younger generations, there has been an insurgency in mental health cases over the last 10 years. Can we, therefore, see a better representation of mental health characters in modern-day movies in comparison to 20 years ago?

Placing an audience into a character’s mindset is not the easiest task. When looking at mental health, it is important to understand the defining quality of normal behavior which Fredric Neuman describes as ‘…a kind of flexibility that allows him to adapt to the different demands and stresses that life imposes upon him’. Our world has advanced dramatically in the last 20 years, which has subsequently formed a long list of stresses for people to adapt to. That’s not to say movies in the ’90s didn’t explore burned-out characters, but the mind struggles to think of an older representation of an irritated male figure like Adam Sandler in Anger Management. These bold personas started to trickle onto our screens in the 21st century. But directors were only giving audiences a glimpse of these characters struggling with behavioural disorders from a distance, never giving a clear perspective from their own mind. That is until recently. 

In 2016, Emily Blunt played commuter Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train, suffering from alcoholic psychosis and paranoia, which was so realistically harrowing that viewers could feel her own fears and thoughts. The flashes and hallucinations were a vivid representation of these individuals’ confused, excited, and delirious outlook on life. Not only that, but director Tate Taylor chose to display Blunt’s raw look of the burned-out image, being tiresome and worried; which older depictions had so frequently shied away from. Looking at 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman, Meg Ryan plays a character suffering from depression and alcohol addiction in a conventional American family. We never get to see Ryan’s disease from her own eyes, making it difficult for audiences to relate to what she may be experiencing. Blunt, on the other hand, expresses the brutal realities of the disorder, opening eyes to viewers to perhaps relate and compare their own feelings against the film.

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train (2016)

Anyone that followed Oscar winner Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted would have seen her fighting, alongside her female allies, as they confronted the system who labelled their mental illnesses. The movie stood out for confronting the assumptions that society held against women suffering from behavioural disorders back then, but it still depicted these characters as ‘crazy’. Fast forward 18 years later, South-African bombshell Charlize Theron transforms this view with her performance in Tully by playing a woman in a day to day environment suffering from postnatal depression. Her character Marlo’s symptoms of constant sadness, lack of energy and difficulty bonding with her baby was one of the most eye-opening views of this disease on screen. Exploring depressive behaviour in female characters within everyday life situations, instead of chained bedside in a hospital, was monumental for viewers; more so as 1 in every 10 mothers suffer from this disease within a year of giving birth.

Comedy was at the forefront of mental health characters in the ’80s, perhaps as directors didn’t want to hound down on the truth behind the mind. In Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, a beautiful rendition of a relationship between the Babbitt brothers, showed Levinson using humour by mocking Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), Charlie’s (Tom Cruise) autistic brother, and his normal abilities in the movie. Undoubtedly, such light-heartedness goes down nicely with more mainstream Hollywood fare, but it seems in recent years these barriers have been broken to make way for the brutal truths behind what it actually feels like to battle against these demons. Take Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Adam Driver’s depressive state, as he creeps to the edge of his divorce, screaming at his wife in the doorway of his apartment, is an honest and brave implosion of emotional grief.

There is no doubt about it, 21st Century directors have carved deeper into behavioural disorders on-screen. As viewers, we have waved goodbye to witnessing depression, anger, and anxiety within the confines of comedy, and welcomed dramatic scripts that bravely tell the experience of suffering. In 2019, Reese Witherspoon announced she was stepping up to the plate by adapting Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a story about a 29-year-old woman suffering from OCD, depression and trauma. Not only do these modern-day adaptations represent our society’s expanded knowledge of mental health, but it gives reassurance to the jittery audience member to align their own thoughts of normality in comparison to the tale.