The thing about so many ‘mental health movies’ is that they ultimately resort to extreme examples of behaviours or situations in order to build and maintain drama. But, for so many people with mental health issues, there isn’t anything particularly cinematic about the day to day. There’s no oversized sweater and neatly tousled hair to accompany mascara streaked tears; there’s no padded cells and bad haircuts; there’s no ‘quirky’ outbursts that are somehow meant to be sexy.

And that’s where so many movies that try to tackle such weighty issues fall down – because they attempt to create a narrative out of something that is rarely structured. With Broken Diamonds, writer Steve Waverly and director Peter Sattler seem to have struck the balance right in terms of creating as naturalistic a portrayal as possible. Yes, there are a couple of dramatic moments but, on the whole, the film allows its characters and their various storylines to breathe without foisting unnecessary tropes or ‘worthy’ speeches upon them.

The film opens with Scott (Ben Platt), a shy and uptight waiter who has decided to jack in the day job in order to move to Paris and pursue his dream of writing a novel. However, just days before he is due to depart for his new life, he is informed that his father has died and that he now has to work with his schizophrenic sister, Cindy (Lola Kirke) in order to get the family home sold. Further to that, her recent ejection from a housing facility means she is now living with her brother until a suitable space is available. Scott now finds himself torn between ensuring his sister is safe and housed and chasing his dreams.

The chemistry between Platt and Kirke is flawless. Whilst Kirke easily gives the stronger of the two performances – offering beautiful nuance and emotional depth to Cindy – Platt is really quite excellent as Scott. He is awkward and bitter; feeling robbed of attention and love owing to his sister’s mental health. Conversely, Cindy is jealous of her brother’s normalcy and the career paths or lifestyle she could have had. Their individual flashbacks offer glimpses into an unhappy and dysfunctional adolescence. Kirke is a wonder to watch. The fear that flashes across her eyes when she is uncertain about new situations or her experiences of sensory overload are so powerful. It’s hard to watch as she begins to unravel, but Kirke never resorts to histrionics; her performance feels so authentic. Their relationship changes and evolves throughout and it will – on more than one occasion – have you swatting away tears.

The trailer for the film makes it seem almost like a cheery “odd couple” type of situation. It crams in a lot of the throwaway one-liners and really plays up to the sibling rivalry, chalk-and-cheese type situation. This couldn’t be further from what the film is actually like. That’s not to say the film is entirely bleak – there are moments of real love and joy, too – but it’s definitely not a buddy movie, either. Sure, there is the odd piece of black humour but it’s sensitive, emotional and will really challenge you as a viewer. Do you cringe at Cindy’s outbursts? Laugh at her? Do her tangents and tics make you uncomfortable? It really pushes the boundaries as to what we perceive as normal life and how we fit in.

What also works incredibly well is the way that information about mental health issues is woven into the script. It never seems forced or prescriptive; it’s actually very helpful. It’s not done in an “explain this to me like a viewer” type of way, either. It feels like Waverly has gone out of his way to create a narrative that is genuine and sensitive, acknowledging how it feels for the person experiencing the mental health issues and those with caregiver burnout. It’s incredibly well balanced.

Keegan DeWitt and Dabney Morris have pulled together a simple but searing score. It’s never intrusive or imposing – it really works alongside the narrative to add another layer of emotional depth. The use of the song Mother’s Girl by Rett Addison really strikes at the core of everything that has unfolded so far. It all adds to the surprising power of the film.

Broken Diamonds is a refreshing take on life with a mental health condition. It completely rejects and refutes all those old Hollywood tropes and never uses Cindy’s schizophrenia as a mere plot device. Instead, it opens up real and meaningful conversations about our mental health – for those who need help and those who are doing the helping. Bolstered by brilliant central performances by Platt and Kirke, this is a film that will hopefully challenge any misconceptions as well as invoking empathy and understanding. A heartfelt – but cliché free – indie gem.

Rating: ★★

Broken Diamonds Debuts On Demand and In Theatres on July 23rd, 2021