Representation of mental health in popular cinema has always been a contentious area of discussion, and for fairly good reason given the limited references we have coming from the likes of Hollywood. That being said, mental health is such a difficult area to positively represent. Most conditions are different for each person who experiences them so the amount of coverage that can be provided may work for one person and be offensive or upsetting to another.
Bearing all this in mind, I decided that for this month’s cinematherapy article I would choose a movie that I personally think does a pretty good job of representing mental health as something other than a throwaway comment or a comedic gimmick. As I’m sure you figured out from the title, that film is Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012).
For those of you who are new to this blog, ‘Cinema Therapy’ is part of a monthly series in which I explore the impact film can have on our mental health. Watching movies may just seem like a way to kill time, and sometimes it is, but it also has the capacity to allow us some escape, recovery, entertainment and even catharsis. If you want to learn more about these benefits, check out my other articles in the series including one on Trauma and The Perks of Being a Wallflower .
Coming from a background in media and communication and now being in the process of studying counselling and psychology, this series is the perfect way for me to combine these interests and show others how getting lost in a good movie can be just the self-care we need to counter our busy and stressful lives.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, let me start with a quick overview. Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Matthew Quick, the movie is directed by David O. Russell and features a great cast including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. The basic premise of the film, as found on IMDB, is as follows:
Spoiler Warning: Now that we have covered the basics, it brings us very smoothly to our obligatory spoiler message. In the paragraphs that will follow I’ll be dissecting the characters and scenes within the film with, and I’ll be candid here, complete disregard for spoilers. I wouldn’t want to take the opportunity to enjoy the film from anyone so if you are interested in seeing it spoiler free I suggest stopping here and saving the rest of the article until after.
Trigger Warning: This movie covers a range of mental health issues including bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Along with this there are quite a few intense mood swings depicted in places. If any of these could act as a potential trigger for you, then do keep this in mind because this would be the last thing I want to cause.
Some of the films I have looked at previously have touched on themes of mental health or alluded to them in one way or another, but with Silver Lining’s Playbook it’s another story entirely. Mental health takes the forefront in this film and runs throughout each of its characters and the overall plot. Due to this it proves tricky to break down in a clear way.
In order for us to maintain some form of structure, I thought it would be best to explore this film as a character study of sorts. With this in mind, we will be looking at the two main characters, and discussing their mental health whilst using some key scenes as examples to further explore what we can take from these depictions. So without further ado, let’s get started:
We can assume instantly in the film that Pat suffers from mental health issues, being introduced as a patient in a mental institution. However, it isn’t until he goes to his first therapy appointment that we learn what his diagnosis actually is. Pat is described as bipolar ‘with mood swings and weird thinking brought on by severe stress.’
We learn that the reason Pat was sent to this institute was due to a traumatic event in which he found his wife cheating on him, lost control, and beat the other man severely. Now this in itself has caused some discussion from those who’ve watched the film, with many stating that this event isn’t exactly an unusual response for a lot of people and that they completely empathise with the actions of the character.
Regardless of whether or not you think what Pat did was justified, his bipolar diagnosis isn’t based on this alone. The character states that he’s been dealing with this his whole life and struggles with delusions about his relationship with his ex-wife and believes that as soon as he betters himself their relationship will return right back to normal. He continues to wear his wedding ring, and even reads her entire classroom syllabus to show her how much he has changed, not seeming to understand that due to the restraining order there is no way she will know.
Delusional behaviour can be extremely common when experiencing manic episodes, and this is shown very clearly throughout the film. It is implied that Pat believes that his ex-wife Nikki can see and hear everything he says and does throughout the start of the film. He apologises to a police officer after a manic episode and begs them not to write him up as Nikki will see it, and later discusses how he thinks dinner at a friends house was a test set up by his ex-wife to see if he was better.
Pat is also shown to have trouble filtering what he thinks and feels, which can sometimes cause offence or difficulties to those around him. He continuously reminds Tiffany that her husband is dead and even at one point goes on a rant about the ending of one of Hemingway’s books at 4am in the morning, throwing the book through the window in his room in the process.
Whilst it is clear that Pat displays many signs of experiencing manic episodes that those diagnosed as bipolar so often do, he rarely exhibits any signs of the depression aspect which is usually associated with the disorder. This has caused some to question the accuracy of the representation and call it toned down, but personally I don’t find this to be the case.
As I have highlighted so frequently on this blog, each of us experience mental health issues in such unique ways, so it will never be the same experience for everyone. It is not uncommon for those suffering from bipolar to lean to one side of that up/down spectrum and I think Pat just happens to fall into the mania side.
I think Pat’s arc in the film really shows just how tough it can be to live with bipolar and whilst it may not be ‘perfect representation’, I challenge you to provide an example that is. Once you look closer past the cinematic set-ups for added excitement, Pat’s actions are actually all quite valid. He surrounds himself with a support system, exercises regularly and attends therapy, all of which are suggested to those suffering from mental health problems in real life. Showing this as the actions of the main character whom we’re routing for allows the concept of self-care and communication to be gradually de-stigmatized.
One scene in particular I think highlights his journey and his relationship with being bipolar is the final dance scene. This is not because of the dialogue, but simply what I think the scene stands for. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the whole routine plays as a simplified depiction of Pat’s bipolar disorder. The songs change with no smooth transition and go from soft to heavy genres which could indicate mood swings. The dancing is by no means incredible but it’s good, and then it’s chaotic, then it’s steady and well-balanced, and in the end they mess up the big lift move, but they slowly but surely adjust and wrap it up all the same. It’s a real study of Pat. He goes back and forth emotionally and true, he has his slip-ups, but he recovers and gets back on his feet, regardless of his condition.
Tiffany is a complex character to say the least. We never exactly get a direct professional diagnosis for her, but she states at one point she is depressed, and we know that she is dealing with the grief that comes from losing her husband Tommy in an accident.
As I’ve stated before in this series, I’m not really in the business of diagnosing fictional characters, but that being said there has been some discussion about Tiffany possibly suffering from signs of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which can be seen through her emotional instability, impulsive behaviour and unstable relationships.
Regardless of Tiffany’s diagnosis, we know that she is dealing with trauma and grief and has previously been on medication for depression, as noticed by Dr. Steven Schlozman in this article for Vulture. We also come to realise that this depression may not have been only brought on by her loss, as she states in one scene that she didn’t want to have children with Tommy because she could barely look after herself let alone a child.
There are two strong parts of Tiffany’s personality that I think are most prominent, and strangely enough they are both the opposite of one another. These are her self-acceptance and insecurity. It’s strange that we see such complexity in characters like this, as they tend to lean to one aspect rather than both, but Jennifer Lawrence shows this brilliantly.
In one scene in the film during a fight with Pat she states the above, showing a sense of self-awareness and maturity. She understands that she is going through mental health struggles, and that her life is far from perfect and can sometimes be a little hectic, but she’s okay with that. It’s an outlook that many of us suffering from a range of mental health issues aren’t able to say about ourselves, at least until a significant way through our journey to recovery.
On the complete reverse of this we know that Tiffany also suffers from many insecurities, which is completely reasonable for anyone, especially those with rocky pasts. In another scene she opens up to Pat about her sexual past after the death of her husband and how it has gotten her into trouble and caused her to lose her job. However, when Pat implies that he thinks this makes her crazier than him, she storms off, and when he catches up she gets very upset and exclaims ‘I opened up to you and you judged me!’.
To those of us struggling with our mental health, this scene hits home. There are so many times that people are close to opening up fully only to feel judged and shut everything away again. It can be difficult to be your authentic self when struggling with emotions, and it becomes even harder when that trust is broken.
Unfortunately we don’t get just as much development for Tiffany as Pat in the film as it’s more about his journey, but what we do see is such a strong character who makes mistakes but tries to own them as much as she can, which is a lesson some of us could bear learning. One thing Silver Lining Playbook does a good job at representing is just how common mental health struggles can be, and this is totally intentional by David O. Russell. In several interviews online, we hear from O. Russell how he wanted to show that it’s not only Pat and Tiffany that have inner struggles. Pat’s father shows signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) along with anger issues, his best friend describes himself as feeling suffocated by pressure.
In this article for USA Today, O. Russell also states that this was his way of showing that ‘we’re all in this together.’ This is such a strong message to take away from the film if nothing else. It is highly likely that everybody will suffer from mental health struggles at one point or another in their lives and just knowing that there are so many people out there all battling alongside you can really help.
Now I know that for the duration of this article I have been singing the film’s praises, which I stand by, but I also have to acknowledge that it wasn’t all great. There are debates around the negative connotations of medication and more importantly, many people have issues with the final scenes of the film and it’s seemingly ‘love heals all’ approach.
Whilst I get what people are saying when they make this comment, and how it does come across a little bit rushed, I am also aware that it is a feature length film and there was no way it was going to wrap up to include a realistic healing journey which for some of us takes years. The film ends with a happy, hopeful ending, and whilst yes, it does kind of imply that Pat and Tiffany’s relationship ‘fixes’ them, we know as viewers that things aren’t as simple as that.
Nonetheless I think it does a good job, and honestly if it ended on a depressing note I’m just not sure I would have come out the other end feeling so positive. Think of a therapy session, you don’t just drop all of your mess on the ground and then sit in it, you pick things up and clean them up and when your time is done you’re hopefully all cleaned up and ready to get on with your day-to-day without carrying any extra pressure with you.
There are so many more scenes I could talk about in this film, as it keeps mental health at the forefront from start to finish, but I know that focusing on every little aspect would be going a little too overboard. I simply wanted to highlight some positive representation which teaches us some lessons in positivity, growth and healing.
Not only this, but it is done in a way that isn’t depicted as a gimmick, punchline or just some sympathy show where we look at how horrible someone’s life is. The film has heart and uniqueness like every single person coping with mental illness. Due to this it was even nominated for several accolades, and won many of them, including an academy award. If nothing else, it adds to the much-needed conversation around mental health and it is a welcome contribution.
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about mental health awareness and training, be sure to follow my blog here. Have you seen the movie before? Do you think it does a good job at portraying mental health? Do you have any recommendations for next month’s cinematherapy? Let me know in the comments down below.
If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.