Hey folks, Brandon Gregory here with a minisode to give ourselves a little break for the holidays. I’m flying solo today, but Maria’s going to be back with us next episode.
Listeners of this show know that both Maria and I struggle with depression. And it sounds so ominous when you say it like that—“struggle with depression”—but now that I’m almost 40 years old, I’ve come to accept this about myself. While it can still be crippling at times, there are also times when depression is just this normal part of my life. Like, oh, I’m depressed now. Let me pull some standard coping mechanisms out of my bag of depressing tricks.
This is a podcast about movies and mental health, so I thought I’d spend some time talking about movies I enjoy watching when I’m depressed. These films are sad, although not necessarily soul-crushing, and they just feel familiar when my mood starts tanking. At the same time, these aren’t just sad films; they’re also about coping with that sadness and overcoming it. They’re just the right mix of clouds and sunshine to make me feel better as I feel myself getting depressed. Let’s get started.
The Royal Tenenbaums
OK, first on the list is a film that all hipster kids knew, the film that put Wes Anderson on the map, The Royal Tenenbaums. Maria and I are big fans of this film, and it was actually the topic of our second episode of this podcast. This isn’t a heart-wrenching drama—in fact, I’d describe it more as a quirky comedy. But it hits pretty close to home on a few fronts.
First, and probably most obviously, there’s the character of Richie Tenenbaum, who grapples with severe depression throughout the film, culminating in a pretty graphic depiction of a suicide attempt. As Maria and I discussed in our episode on this, that suicide attempt wasn’t just a plot twist; it was the catalyst that marked the turning point for many of the characters. In a film full of uncommon style and charm, this scene and the aftermath felt painfully real, and I think that’s a feeling that depressed people know all too well: things seem normal and even happy, but tragedy can so easily work itself into that story, and we know that that’s the painfully real part of the story. But the story isn’t about Richie killing himself. It’s about him and his family dealing with their pain and their shame and finally, painfully taking steps to make it better. Richie was the most direct representation of that, but all of the main characters show a growth like this.
Second, this film is about the Tenenbaum family, but it’s really about the patriarch, the eponymous Royal Tenenbaum. Royal is a guy who has lived his whole life doing what he wants, and in the end, he realizes that it never got him anything worth holding onto. Royal has been an awful person, and he wants to be a better person, even if he has no idea how to do that. When I’m depressed, I don’t know that I act like Royal, but I sure feel like him. I feel selfish and overbearing, and I know people don’t like to be around me, and I want to make that better, but in my depressed state, that’s not something that’s really clear to me. Royal comes up with this convoluted plan to make his family love him, and that doesn’t go so well for him, but he ends up learning that honesty and authenticity are what these people really want out of their relationships as they struggle with their own pain. Knowing and feeling all of that just makes the ending of this film all the sweeter.
Little Miss Sunshine
Next on the list is the 2006 indie darling film Little Miss Sunshine. No film embodies the message, “It’s OK to not be OK” like Little Miss Sunshine. In fact, our podcast episode on the portrayals of depression and failure in Little Miss Sunshine is actually titled “It’s OK to not be OK.” My reasons for choosing this one are actually very similar to my reasons behind The Royal Tenenbaums, but this film deserves a spot on this list too. While my reasoning behind The Royal Tenenbaums was mostly behind the scenes, happening in metaphors and symbolism, Little Miss Sunshine makes this message the star of the show.
First off, we have the character of Frank, who is actually stated to have depression, and starts off in the hospital recovering from a suicide attempt. When he moves in with his sister’s family for recovery, we quickly find that this family is pretty closed off to talking about failure, and one character in particular views Frank as the embodiment of failure. Frank goes through his own transformation and has a little monologue toward the end of the film about failure being the best teacher in life, marking his acceptance of his own failure. But the point of the film isn’t just Frank. Every character has to learn to cope with failure, and the resulting depression, in their own way. It’s this collective coming to peace that draws the family together in solidarity toward the end of the film.
When I’m depressed, the common advice from people who don’t understand depression is to focus on the positive. Practice gratitude, think about the good things in your life. I’m not saying those are bad things, but that’s the wrong mindset for depression, because depression doesn’t have a lot of positives. Instead, the message of this film—be at peace with failure and negativity—is something that helps me a lot more, and that’s something many people aren’t willing to talk about. So the fact that this film so gleefully makes this point is something that brings me comfort when I’m depressed.
Never Let Me Go
Next up is a 2010 film that I only discovered recently, Never Let Me Go. Now this is a lesser known film on this list, but it absolutely deserves a spot here. This is a film about three friends growing up and dealing with the fact that their lives are not going to be what they want. I’m assuming many of you have not seen this film, so I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but the three main characters are dealt a pretty crushing blow that impacts their entire lives. This happens pretty early on in the film, so what the film is actually about is them dealing with this emotionally and coming to terms with all of their hopes that will never become realities. This is probably the saddest film on this list, but it’s a beautiful one nonetheless and one that I really enjoyed watching.
What was most striking to me about this film is that they don’t spend a lot of time showing how sad these characters are, even though they have every right to be. Instead, the characters are full of optimism, and they learn to cherish every moment they have. They even feel proud of their acceptance of their lot in life. These are things that depressed people don’t like being lectured about, because our coping mechanisms are not your inspirational Instagram stories, but on some level, we’ve all learned how to do these things, mostly out of necessity. Show me a depressed person who doesn’t know how to laugh in even the darkest moments. You can’t. We all laugh in the darkest moments. That’s kind of our thing. Anyway, in this film, the tragedy is not the point—the acceptance is, and that’s something I really relate to when I’m depressed.
Alright, these last two movies are actually my two favorite movies, so I have a special affinity for them. Coming up next is the 1953 classic film, Roman Holiday. If you’re familiar with Audrey Hepburn, this was her first film, and it’s a fantastic film. This is an interesting pick because, through most of the film, this is an upbeat romantic comedy. There’s a bit of drama in the beginning, but the reason this film is on this list is the ending. If you’re expecting a happily ever after ending, you will be sorely disappointed, and that’s a bit of a shock coming after all these light adventures that Princess Ann has. As the film reminds us, life isn’t a fairytale and even flights of fancy are anchored to reality.
The film is about Princess Ann, who is really a princess somewhere in Europe, but it’s not about her being elegant and romantic, it’s about how the responsibilities of her position are this crushing weight on her. So she escapes. She runs off into the busy city of Rome, meets a handsome man, and has a little adventure. It’s a reprieve from a life that’s been dictated for her, and the fairytale would be Ann running off with this man because they’re in love. But like I said, this is not a fairytale. Reality is an ever-present force in this film, and in the end, reality wins out. Not to say that Ann’s little Roman holiday wasn’t meaningful, but reality wins out in the end.
Again, this is something I really relate to when I’m depressed. Depression can be crushing, and it can make some decisions for you that you really don’t want to make. We can go out and have some adventures—in fact, depressed people can be a lot of fun to be around—but when we’re stuck in a depressed state, these fun times are just like Ann’s little adventure: a brief holiday with reality waiting on the other side.
Seriously, if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday, I highly recommend it. This is the quintessential classic film and it’s what I recommend people start with if they want to get into classic films.
Lost in Translation
The final film on this list is my favorite film of all time, the Sofia Coppola masterpiece Lost in Translation. Coppola has this amazing ability to show us really complex emotions that can’t really be explained, but you know it when you see it, and that’s what this film is. If you try to explain the plot, it doesn’t sound all that interesting, but it captures a very specific feeling, and it’s one that really hit home for me.
Have you ever felt somehow more alone in the midst of a crowd of people? That’s where the two lead characters here find themselves. One is an aging actor and the other is a young housewife. They’re both terribly alone despite having a lot of people in their lives, and in the midst of all this, they find each other. This is a story about being lost, but it’s not a story about being found—it’s a story about being lost together. That’s a significant difference, and I really appreciate the subtlety Coppola used in portraying this.
This is a very specific feeling. I’m lost, and nobody really understands it, but anyway, I can’t explain it. Oh hey, I met someone who feels the same way. Even if we don’t know a way out, at least I’m not alone. It’s a feeling that some people know very well. It’s also a feeling that, if you don’t know it, it’s almost impossible to get someone else to understand it. I think there are a decent number of films that try to portray this emotion, but none do it as well as Lost in Translation, and that’s why I love it.
So that’s my list. If this is your first time tuning in, this is Peculiar Picture show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health. Most of our other episodes deal with specific films and we get into what these films say about mental health. So if you enjoyed this, check out some of our other episodes.