Mental illness is one of those subjects that the art of cinema rarely gets right. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most of us have struggled with some sort of mental health issue in our own lives, or those of persons close to us, it’s the sort of topic that audiences want to push away when they go out for some entertainment. We fear it. As with death, we have an infantile, irrational, atavistic desire to believe that it can only happen to somebody else.
Onscreen, as in literature, the horror genre has long used “madness” as a distancing device that gives the viewer permission to feel relieved when the crazed killer finally falls off the roof or whatever. Melodrama may use mental illness in the opposite way, to engage our sympathies for a character; but once again the various myths and stigmas surrounding it are usually fed by misinformation. That’s particularly true when it comes to the subject of clinical depression: Either the non-depressed protagonist is applauded for fleeing the depressed friend’s aura of “negativity,” or the depressed person experiences some sort of by-the-bootstraps miracle cure.
That is, if the subject of depression is addressed at all. It’s not a popular focus for moviemaking because, well…it’s such a downer, you know? Who wants to see that – especially if a neat happy ending can’t be supplied by Act Three?
The Act Three upswing is the only thing about Kurt Voelker’s new indie dramedy The Bachelors that rings slightly less than true, and I for one am willing to forgive it, since it’s presented as a hopeful moment in time – a step on the twisty, gradual road to healing. It’s also a valid statement about the importance of support systems for the sufferer, not to mention the vital whatever-it-is that works to take you outside yourself when that self is trying very hard to drag you back into some dark inner morass.
The Bachelors – which had its East Coast premiere at this month’s Woodstock Film Festival and was slated for theatrical release this past week – gets so much right about the topics of grief and depression (and how one can morph seamlessly into the other, even though they’re definitely not the same thing) that watching it is not a gloomy experience at all. I use the term “dramedy” deliberately, as the film absolutely nails the lifeline that black humor provides for people caught in the throes of woe. Set mainly in absurdly sunny Southern California locales, it shows how intractable and unresponsive to treatment depression can be, even when a sufferer’s exterior circumstances change, apparently for the better; but it does so, somehow, without ever feeling like a slog through the mire.
What make it work so well, besides witty, tidy, succinct screenwriting by the director, are the committed performances by a wonderful core cast. Voelker’s script had the good fortune to attract the notice of J. K. Simmons before the actor struck Oscar gold. If you find it difficult to imagine Simmons as a laid-back nice guy after his incredibly intense performance as the martinet jazz professor in Whiplash, you may find it worthwhile to see The Bachelors simply to experience the flip side of his thespian virtuosity. His Bill Palet, a grieving widower who just can’t seem to move on, is a sweet, charming, deeply human presence who makes us care. When the luminous Julie Delpy (playing a French teacher, naturally) turns to this craggy geezer for respite when pursued by a younger, hunkier and altogether more insufferable colleague, we immediately understand the appeal.
The real find in this cast is a young actor named Josh Wiggins, who plays Bill’s teenaged son Wes. Bill has uprooted the bereaved pair and relocated to LA, where an old college buddy (Kevin Dunn) has offered him a position as a calculus teacher at a fancy private boys’ school. Wes is enrolled as a student, and the decidedly non-athletic youth finds real challenge in the school’s requirement that he take track and field. He also finds friends as outsidery as himself, and a romantic interest in a visiting female student with issues of her own (Odeya Rush).
Wiggins does a terrific job of portraying the boy’s highly internal way of processing the loss of his mother and the emotional absence of his father, all while negotiating the usual pressures of adolescent social and academic life. Wes’ moment of explosion, which forces Bill to emerge from his own well of sorrow long enough to reclaim his responsibility as a parent, is the most give-it-yer-all scene executed onscreen by an unknown young actor that I’ve seen in recent years. Keep your eye on this kid; he’s going places.
Ultimately, The Bachelors is as much a worthy addition to the formidable literary/cinematic tradition of father/son tales as it is an unflinching treatment of mental illness as it all-too-often occurs in the real world. The uplifting ending supplies enough hope to go on, but not cheesy wish-fulfillment. And the full narrative arc will make you laugh at the sort of things that, when one is going through them, aren’t really funny – but not in a mocking way. The craft and commitment of these actors will help you slide inside these characters’ skins. You won’t regret the visit.