Movember: mental health on the big screen
by Rory Buccheri
Oh, Captain! My Captain!
In the crowded classroom of Professor Keating, there was space for every kind of spark: from mathematical genius and physics breakthrough to raw and unabridged poetic passion. There was one spark missing, though: space for young men to share their feelings openly.
For those of you who have watched Dead Poets Society (1989), it will be hard to think back to the heartbreaking scene of Neil’s suicide without being overcome by emotion. It is difficult not to think, watching with today’s eyes, that much of the suffering could have been saved if all those young men had had a chance to voice their vulnerability, to speak about the unbearable weight of the pressures they were under. For most of those young men, pressures came both from their parents and peers: be the best of the class, go to the fanciest Ivy-league school, fulfil your life the way others want to see it fulfilled. No chance to have your word on it, to talk about insecurities and desires with an open heart.
This is a sad reality to this day. Not much has changed about pressures and expectations forcing men to press on, power through, leading to them ignoring that inner voice saying that it is okay to speak out. In fact, speaking out has a lifesaving quality to it.
Another classic starring Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting (1998), discusses more openly that tension between academic genius and mental health. With Williams playing the role of a psychiatrist, Dr Sean, and Matt Damon as Will, a young man dealing with his wellbeing, the mental health subtext is brought into the text of the script itself. Albeit a step up from Dead Poets Society, the movie still has its limitations in the way it deals with mental wellbeing. The main focus of the sessions remains Will’s teenage love entanglements rather than anything related to his inner thoughts; in the troubled psychiatrist, we see the scars of unresolved matters that he has dragged on for fifty and more years.
Still, the sessions the two share make important matters surface and, most importantly, show that there is a way to talk to other men about moments of love, loss and vulnerability.
The cinematic representation of men and mental health has not changed much since the release of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, but there is change happening on screen. Earlier this year, Another Round (2021), starring Mads Mikkelsen in the guise of a high school teacher, displayed a genuine bond between men, coming together with a shared project and, most importantly, shared fears and problems. The scene at the very end, in which the two main protagonists drink and dance on the pier with their students, is nothing short of liberating. It is the climax to a series of hiccups in the men’s lives that are discussed (and dipped in booze) much more openly than in any other cinematic mainstream of the 80s and 90s.
Dead Poets Society is not simply a movie about how rich, white America is robbing promising youths of their passion to go into humanities subjects. It is a tale of vitality, a hymn to finding what makes your heart beat. Ultimately, it is a tale of how young men’s feelings have been pushed to a corner where they cannot be seen. In the same way, Another Round (2021) is much more than a breath of fresh, Scandinavian air in Western filmmaking. Perhaps it is too early to call it a trendsetter, but it is surely a brilliant example of positive representations of men talking openly about their mental health.