(by Dustin Putman
A heartfelt but blessedly unsentimental slice-of-life about a suicidal teen's enlightening five-day stay in a psychiatric ward, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" reminds of a lighter-toned version of 1999's "Girl, Interrupted" by way of "Rushmore"-era Wes Anderson. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2006's "Half Nelson"), adapting from the novel by Ned Vizzini, the film cleanly and affectingly tells a good—and yes, kind of funny—story while letting its cinematic inspirations be known. In the way that it really listens to and seems to understand its teen characters—and, for that matter, the adults, too—it's clear that Boden and Fleck share a real affinity for John Hughes (one scene involving a run through the hallways while trying to go unnoticed by authority figures is right out of 1985's "The Breakfast Club"). This isn't some copy of that late, great artist, though, but a warm and respectful tribute. Article continues below
Recently off his Zoloft prescription and deeply stressed out over everything from his parents to his unrequited crush on gal pal Nia (Zoe Kravitz) to an upcoming fellowship application, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) takes a detour on his way to jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and seeks help at a nearby hospital. He is hoping to receive a quick fix with medication, but instead finds himself checked into the adult psychiatric ward for a minimum of five days (the teen ward is under renovation). It is here that he befriends the seemingly together but internally troubled thirtysomething Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), starts to care for pretty teenage cutter Noelle (Emma Roberts), and experiences something of a self-fulfilling catharsis about his life, the expectations placed on him, and his personal hopes for the future.
Wise in its ways and privy to not becoming a sappy "Afterschool Special," "It's Kind of a Funny Story" makes it clear that Craig will not be magically cured at the end of his brief hospital stay. Quoting Bob Dylan, Bobby tells him, "He not busy being born is dying." Craig understands what he means. By the conclusion, he still has a lot to work out and deal with, but he also has plenty to live for. He recognizes that his troubles, too, shall pass, and it is this acknowledgment, played with honesty, that lifts the picture above that of a standard-issue issue movie even as it still sends out a strong, worthwhile message.
Craig's day-to-day goings on, mixed with his inner musings as depicted through onscreen narrations to the camera, help to fully develop him in a sympathetic, three-dimensional character whom we grow to understand and care about. Baby steps toward growing into his own skin—his heart-to-hearts with Noelle; his initiative in trying to help antisocial, possibly agoraphobic roommate Muqtada (Bernard White); his attempts to break down Bobby's deceptively cheerful barrier; his discovery that he genuinely enjoys drawing—are handled with an unpushy, thoughtful touch. Another scene where Craig is coaxed into singing during a musical appreciation meeting and imagines himself and his fellow inmates as glam rockers belting out Queen's "Under Pressure" is exuberantly inspired.
In his first leading film role, Keir Gilchrist (2007's "Dead Silence") impresses and endears as protagonist Craig. A straight man with uniform charisma, Gilchrist holds things down in a real and relatable realm. He is aided by Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's script, assuring that the narrative never gets overly precious. Reeling back his recent broad comedic theatrics, Zach Galifianakis (2009's "The Hangover") is terrific as Bobby, balancing the natural humor of his character's personality with levity and pathos. In many ways, it is Galifianakis' role that is the most touching, the darkness he hides within himself only cursorily being dealt with. As Noelle, Emma Roberts (2010's "Valentine's Day") is a delight, the perfect foil—and love interest—for Craig. It is this performance more than any of her albeit solid previous ones that shows what a bright career she has ahead of her, once and for all out of the shadow of famed aunt Julia Roberts. In supporting turns, Viola Davis (2010's "Eat Pray Love") is a reliable constant as head doctor Eden Minera, while Zoe Kravitz (2010's "The Greatest") and newcomer Thomas Mann make lasting marks as Craig's best friends on the outside Nia and Aaron. Only Lauren Graham (2009's "Flash of Genius") and Jim Gaffigan (2010's "Going the Distance"), as parents Lynn and George, feel undernourished and not as amply explored as they could have been.
Though set primarily within the plain walls of a hospital, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" never comes off as stagy or claustrophobic. By getting into Craig's mind and visualizing his thoughts, cinematographer Andrij Parekh is able to open the picture up enough that it never becomes static. Boosted, also, by the lovely, mood-making use of music by Broken Social Scene, the film floats by with indelible, always absorbing panache. With the exception of a late scene involving Egyptian music and Craig's roommate Muqtada that is too pat and cutesy by a half, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" takes great strides as a down-to-earth, tough but sweet drama that refuses to settle for easy answers. Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Craig. Things won't always be easy, but that's a part of it all. He'll be all right.