Welcome To Me & The Problem With Portraying Mental Illness In Films

Photo: Courtesy of Alchemy.
Kristen Wiig hits the tragicomic sweet spot as a woman with borderline personality disorder in the newWelcome to Me, directed by Shira Piven. In short order, Wiig's character Alice Klieg wins the lottery, goes off her meds cold turkey, and buys her own TV show on a local infomercial channel. Despite her obsession with Oprah, her own show is sheer self-indulgence; she hires actors to replay emotional slights from former friends, Skypes with her mom, and cooks and eats a cake made of meat as per her new iron-heavy diet, which she's taken up in lieu of Abilify.

Alice's personal life is no less of a train wreck: She gets involved with Rich, a cable TV host played by Wes Bentley, who confesses he's been divorced twice, "and by twice," he adds, "I mean three times." Her shrink, played by Tim Robbins, fires her. Her best friend, played by Linda Cardellini, eventually gets her fill of Alice's narcissism. Finally, Alice hits rock bottom in one of the most talked-about scenes from Sundance. The nuanced script by Eliot Laurence and careful attention to tone by Piven and her editors perfectly balance the dark undertones of a particularly truculent personality disorder and an unflinching awkwardness that dares you to laugh.

"These are real people in real circumstances," Piven told me during a press day in NYC, citing Punch-Drunk Love, The King of Comedy, A Woman Under the Influence, and even Network as inspirational touchstones. "I love seeing comedians play it really straight when the material is good. And I wouldn't say Kristen plays this straight, but she's a real human being. And if she's not, I feel like the movie fails." Wiig's excellent performance opposite Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins showed a talent for drama, but even her funniest and weirdest Saturday Night Live characters had a hint of pathos about them.

The very premise of Welcome to Me is absurd, as are plenty of Alice's actions — there are some really jaw-dropping moments in the movie that will have you squirming. At the same time, if you've faced mental illness yourself, or you know someone who has, it's impossible to ignore just how unnervingly on-point plenty of Alice's behavior is. And, seeing someone onscreen who's like you or someone in your life can be incredibly moving, if not downright empowering.

From Oscar-bait dramas like A Beautiful Mind, which often conflate being a genius (or otherwise "special") with self-torture and ultimate tragedy, to the indie Garden State, which presupposes you can't actually feel if you take anti-depressants, movies about mental illness have generally left a sour taste in my mouth. As a pop culture pedant and a practically lifelong depressive/anxious/obsessive-compulsive person, I've come to these sorts of movies with an extra-skeptical eye. I still haven't forgiven anyone involved with As Good as It Gets, back when OCD was still a talk-show topic and not anything I could talk about with my tween friends. As I've grown up, the conversation about mental illness has blown wide open in ways I never could have imagined.

Even though Welcome to Me isn't presenting itself as a serious movie with a message, it still manages to be insightful and ultimately empathetic with its often-unlikeable protagonist. Like most movies, getting the right tone was dependent on playing with different takes and improvisation, changes in the edit room, and feedback from small screenings. The latter is what seems to have stuck with Piven the most.

"We had a couple of people who stood up in the audience and said, 'I have borderline personality disorder,' and they were people who always ultimately were grateful for the movie. And they were able to laugh at it but also feel a little bit less in the dark," she said. Throughout the process, viewers' responses to the movie seemed to have an awful lot to do with that person's experience with BPD and other mental illnesses as well. Piven relayed a story about an industry acquaintance whose reaction surprised her; she was expecting the typical neutral or encouraging feedback but got a much more personal response.

"He was like, 'Oh my God, I know someone exactly like Alice. It was painful to watch. It was painful because I've been through this experience,'" she said, adding "a couple people in the business had been through dealing with people so similar to Alice. People with mental illnesses dealing with their own TV shows, even." Still, it's the general audience reaction that resonates more. One young 20-something viewer thanked her for making the film, she said.

"The creative side of him just enjoyed the movie as a movie, and he was not off-put by it, and I think he felt kind of, in some way, a little bit empowered by the fact that 'she has what I have' but we feel for her," Piven noted, and that's despite the character's aggravating qualities. Like the horrified behind-the-scenes TV production team, which includes Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and James Marsden, she says, "We definitely want to slap her around sometimes and be like, 'Don't do it!'"

A lot of those don't-do-it moments include great breaches of other people's privacy. Including other people in your personal narrative is always a dicey proposition, though as Anne Lamott once wrote, "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better." Plus, it feels like a slippery slope to condemn a character for baring it all — even in a mess of a TV show — when someone like Karl Ove Knausgård is applauded for his seemingly endless series of novels entitled My Struggle. On the other hand, Alice draws people into her maelstrom, and it's clear that even the squillions of dollars she's ready to spend to broadcast her life can only go so far.

Whether or not Alice gets a happy ending is up to interpretation, as is whether or not her show ultimately acts as a catharsis — a sort of televised primal scream therapy that took her to her lowest point so she could try and build herself back up. Either way, it's good to see one Girl, Interrupted who manages to grow up.

Welcome to Me opens in theaters May 1.
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