Cinema as Therapy: 7 Films to Watch During Mental Health Month

Daniel Johnston, the late great singer-songwriter profiled in Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston.’

Nate von Zumwalt

It’s almost never easy or convenient to broach the issues that warrant our attention. Admittedly, sometimes our collective aversion to truly confronting our world’s pain is a problem. When we channel the courage to do so, we usually find that the commonality offers its own sense of healing. When we don’t, we perpetuate a groundswell of stigma and shame.

May is nationally recognized as Mental Health Month, intended to spread awareness around depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and other mental illnesses, and ultimately promote a more embracing and compassionate world. Among the countless virtues of artistic expression are its therapeutic tendencies and its capacity to communicate the ineffable. In a world that makes it entirely too easy to feel like an outlier, art can serve as a harbor of understanding.

Over the years on both the fiction and nonfiction side, Sundance Institute has supported films that keenly examine the lives of subjects fighting daily battles against mental illness. For Mental Health Month, we look at seven of these films that shed light on the lives of fictional characters and real life subjects and offer a window into the world of mental illness. Keep reading for the full watchlist.

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“A manic-depressive mess of a father tries to win back his wife by attempting to take full responsibility of their two young, spirited daughters, who don’t make the overwhelming task any easier.”


“Dana Perry has gathered home movies, photographs, and a variety of different documents to tell the story of her son, Evan: his bipolar illness, his life, and his death, and their impact on those who loved him the most. She interviews his siblings and friends, his doctors and his teachers, and in the process, she chronicles a harrowing and difficult journey. The camera provides insight and revelation, and yet Boy Interrupted is a film that is also full of despair. The film’s saving grace is that it functions, in the final analysis, as therapy for both its viewers and its subjects at a most fundamental level. It is an essentially human story, and a parent’s worst nightmare.”


“Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, strives for a greater understanding of her family history of suicide and mental illness. As tragedies are explored and deeply hidden secrets are revealed, Mariel searched for a way to overcome a similar fate.”


“From the bloody battlefields of Afghanistan, to his home in North Carolina, Sergeant Nathan Harris struggles to conquer the physical and mental fallout of war. A shell of the man he once was, will Harris ever return to the happy life he shared with his loving wife, Ashley? Contrasting the horrors of the battlefield with the battle back home, Hell and Back Again is a transcendent film that comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.”


“Eating disorders have reached epidemic levels in America—yet only recently have they been recognized as serious mental illnesses. One in seven people with anorexia nervosa will die, making it the deadliest of all psychiatric diagnoses. With Thin, Lauren Greenfield, a photographer acclaimed for illuminating women’s and society’s attitudes toward the female body, gains unprecedented access to a Florida residential treatment center to observe four anorexic women, aged 15 to 30, struggling to recover over a six-month period.”


Helen focuses on a woman with an apparently perfect life: a successful academic, she seems happily married with a wonderful daughter. But we witness a sudden breakdown and a journey that is enigmatic and heartbreakingly real. When solutions prove elusive and Helen is hospitalized, she forges a relationship with Mathilda, a fellow traveler who both aids and traumatizes her life’s course. When death seems the only answer, and the safe haven of family gives no respite, the pain of bipolarity is exhausting and overwhelming.”


The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a stunning portrait of a musical genius who nearly slipped away. Director Jeff Feuerzeig exquisitely depicts a perfect example of brilliance and madness going hand in hand. Because he is an artist suffering from manic depression with delusions of grandeur, Daniel Johnston’s life is marked by wild fluctuations, numerous downward spirals, and periodic respites.”


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