Silver Linings Playbook: An unflinching look at bipolar disorder

Intro by Brandon

We talk a lot about representation in movies, and honestly, it’s a big deal. I’m part Native American, and I get excited any time I see a well-written Native American character in film—which is, admittedly, not very often. But in the past decade or two, we’ve seen some amazing progress with representation in film. The superhero genre gave us films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Mad Max: Fury Road gave us an amazing female action hero. Crazy Rich Asians finally gave Asian characters a chance in the spotlight. We now have gay characters that aren’t just running jokes. We have a long way to go, but we’re making some progress.

But what about representation of mental illness? Most of the time, when mental illness shows up in film, it’s to explain why the killer in a crime or horror film is an evil bastard, or it gives us a character we’re supposed to laugh at. We’re seeing some progress in representation here too, with films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but characters with mental illness are usually either poorly-written or poorly-researched.

I myself have a mental illness, and it’s a big one: bipolar disorder. This condition gets much less attention in film than more commonly-understood conditions like depression and PTSD. And, as I said above, representation matters. When I see someone like me, who knows my struggles and pain, it’s comforting—especially in a world where very few people seem to understand people like me. Bipolar disorder is starting to show up in a few movies; but my absolute favorite portrayal of bipolar disorder is the 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook, not only for its accuracy, but for its willingness to focus in on the more mundane details of these characters’ lives, showing that the illness is a big part of their lives, but not the only part of their lives.

The plot follows Pat, a man just getting out of a mental institution and recently diagnosed with bipolar. The explosive manic episode that led to his stay in the institution also wrecked his marriage (although, as we find out, the relationship wasn’t that great to begin with), and he comes out ready to work to win back his wife Nikki. There’s a slight problem, though: Nikki has filed a restraining order against Pat. Desperate to get a letter to her, he meets Tiffany, a young woman with a similar condition (borderline personality disorder) who offers to help him in return for his help in a dance competition she wants to compete in. Tiffany has her own trauma and issues that have made her life hard, and she sees in Pat someone who just might understand those issues. It’s no surprise that the two characters are drawn to each other and become close, but what kind of relationship can they have with their significant emotional and relational issues?

This is a very personal episode for both of us, as Maria and I get pretty real about our own experiences with mental illness and trauma. Straight talk about bipolar disorder, coming to terms with your mental illness, and Italian food, are all coming up soon in this episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health.

Musical selections in this episode include “Black Sunglasses” by Lovefine, via Icons8, as well as selections from Purple Planet Music and Free Music Archive.


B: Mental illness is one of the few conditions where people will feel worse for you when you’re treating it than when you have it. You say, “I have mental illness,” you’ll get some sympathy. But you say, “I’m treating mental illness,” people will feel worse for you.

M: There’s this misconception that, in order to be a writer or an artist, you have to have something wrong with you. It’s an accepted thing. It’s kind of strange. I had this thinking that, if I was medicated, I would lose my creativity and I would not be the same person that I was.

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