In their bedazzling film Half Nelson, the married writer-director team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden successfully marshaled dramatic intensity in a setting intensified by its close quarters—an inner city high school and the strained brain of a drug-addled teacher. Something similar unfolds in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in which our 16-year-old protagonist (Keir Gilchrist) ends up, through circumstances, stuck in the adult psychiatric ward of a hospital for five days. There, he gets assorted wake-up calls, including the contrast of his tender plight and the less-hopeful cases wandering the halls.
Grounding the story—based on Ned Vizzini’s novel—in this tight, hermetic environment creates an atmosphere both claustrophobic and comforting, but the filmmakers take it outside, as well. These moments include AWOL field trips engineered by the ward’s charismatic, wild-haired maverick (played by the loveable goofball Zack Galifianakis), flashbacks, imaginary asides, and a fun-loving play-acting music video for “Under Pressure” that features characters from the ward.
If the prospect of a film based on a suicidal teenager’s pathway to wellness sounds grim, it isn’t in this case, or at least not entirely. Even from the early stages, as our young protagonist checks into the ER with reports of depression gone off the scale, we see the light in his eyes and the promise of recovery, partly through the power of love interests. In some way, the levity of the situation lightens the emotional load, while also diluting the reality of the context. Too quickly, the film’s premise descends into a semi-demeaning gallery of kooks and harmless rogues, a watered-down Cuckoo’s Nest for the “indie” generation. (Broken Social Scene provides the musical score, incidentally.)
While things get too smug for comfort and the film lacks the strength of earlier Fleck/Boden films (including the fantastic Sugar), Funny Story offers enough quirky goodness and emo warmth to make for a decent night at the movies.