It’s kind of a funny movie. But it’s also kind of a dramatic one. And kind of a welcome surprise.
Set in a mental ward, It’s Kind of a Funny Story details the “Boy, Interrupted” misadventures of a 16-year-old.
Keir Gilchrist (above left, of TV’s “United States of Tara”) stars as bright, depressive Craig Gilner, a New York City high schooler who feels pressured by his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) to enroll in an elite summer program that will help him get accepted to a prestigious university.
Overwhelmed by everything going on in his life on top of society’s woes — that is, academic deadlines, an unrequited crush, US military entanglements, and the economic downturn — Craig has suicidal urges, so he impulsively checks himself into the psychiatric ward of a Brooklyn hospital.
When he changes his mind and wants to exit stage-left, he is told that five nights is the legally mandated minimum for suicidal patients, and that, because of ongoing renovations, teenage patients are temporarily sharing space and facilities with the adult patients.
Among the patients he meets are Bobby, an immediate mentor played by Zach Galifianakis (at right in photo), a dad who has made a number of suicide attempts; and the sensitive, troubled, and fetching Noelle, played by Emma Roberts.
The staff shrink, played by Viola Davis, tries to calm Craig down and urges him to accept that he must stay here for a while and to learn from the experience and from contact with others.
Writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), their screenplay based on a semi-autobiographical 2006 Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini, maintain a lighthearted and optimistic tone.
This is, to be sure, a somewhat sanitized and romanticized depiction of mental instability. But despite the decidedly dark subject matter, the film never seems cavalier about mental illness or the very serious issue of teen alienation and suicide.
The directors also include fanciful fantasy and flashback sequences, some animated, to convey Craig’s dreams and memories, with modestly effective results.
The appealing and nuanced Gilchrist, who also narrates, largely underplays yet is remarkably expressive, and has an unforced charm that allows him to pretty much carry the load without calling attention to his pivotal importance in the story.
Galifianakis, the breakout star of The Hangover, also impresses as a mental patient who cannot cope with stress, showing that he can tuck away his effectively idiosyncratic comic instincts and shift into a lower and more serious gear for a movie in which the drama is just as prominent as the comedy.
A One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a younger audience, to whom it will speak most directly, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is probably a shade too glib and tidy for its own good.
But Fleck and Boden seem to want to stress that this kind of stress needn’t be life-threatening. Their submerged let’s-take-it-down-a-notch message may not be the only way to go, but it is a valid if chancy approach to the material.
So we’ll check ourselves into 2½ stars out of 4. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a playful dramedy about adolescent angst the title of which will have detractors responding, “No, it isn’t,” while believers smile appreciatively.