Mental health is a hard subject to broach in a cinema. Unless you’re a schizophrenic math genius or an attractive guy with manic mood swings, mental illnesses are internal and not very constructive for a visual medium. The subject of an eating disorder is even more marginalized because it’s firstly a women’s issue and secondly it sounds so overdramatic thanks to its rise of awareness in the 70’s after school special era. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder since the age of 14 (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) if you want to be technical) I completely understand that perception. It feels like the most first world of problems where either you have food available and refuse to eat it or see all that food and can’t stop consuming it. You’re ashamed that you can’t manage the most basic of human needs. The stigmas makes it even more guilt-ridden which is why I’ve gravitated to the few films willing to talk about it. These aren’t revolutionary movies that changed the perceptions of these disorders but smart enough to weave it into their stories in humor or solidarity which is what makes them remarkable for me.
5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
I’ve never quite warmed to this cult classic as I’m not much of a Raimi fan (or a Dead Head, is that the term?) with its projectile vomit and eye ball popping but I do respect it. Originally it was purely because of its bleak ending that lived up to the title. Since then thanks to the incredibly well researched academic horror podcast, The Faculty of Horror, who shed light on the theory that this movie about young banker, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) who is being haunted not by a curse but a rather nasty eating disorder. There’s an oral fixation theme as flies and cats exit characters’ mouths and an old gypsy woman tries to sink her teeth into our heroine. Most telling is Christine’s overweight childhood flashbacks and her tendency to stare longingly into a pastry shop. I’m impressed with Raimi sneaking such a heavy message into a gross out horror comedy. As this is a subject matter that often pertains more to women it actually feels less of a male gaze “final girl” scenario and back to the roots of horror being an allegory for real issues.
4. Heathers (1988)
Bulimia is the least of students’ worries at Westerburg High when teens start dropping like flies with Draino overdoses and homoerotic murder/suicides. Being a Heather is all about rising to the top of the popularity chain and sometimes you have to off a few people to get there. Part of maintaining that status is looking the part and Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty) who becomes crowned Queen Bee is not so secretively a bulimic. In one of the many memorable quips of this movie Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) remarks into the bathroom mirror “Bulimia is so ’87.” It’s made even more clear of Duke’s fear as she denies having any connection with her former best friend, now overweight high schooler Martha “Dumptruck” (Carrie Lynn). This doesn’t help you sympathize with Duke’s plight but expands upon her character who rather be skinny and idolized than fat and happy with one true friend. As a dark comedy, this is probably the kindest way Heathers could address this 80’s “fad”.
3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Dolls are scary. Dolls dying of malnutrition is even scarier. There’s an undercurrent of unease throughout this rarely seen short partially because blank faced Barbies expounding about the price of fame is rightfully unsettling but also because you know the fate that awaits the molded plastic singer. Hearing the inanimate object say “I like the way I look” still gives me the chills. It may sound melodramatic and silly but Todd Haynes’ mix media film which includes archival 1970’s footage and title cards, gives it substantial artistic gravity. Plus as we all know now, Haynes loves the melodrama and because he’s such an aficionado of the genre there’s immense passion in the filmmaking. It’s obviously a startling watch with its truthfulness being delivered by innocent toys and yet the most inventive way to present a bio pic as well as a “scared straight” video.
2. God Help The Girl (2014)
Completely unfamiliar with the titular album or Belle & Sebastian’s body of work, I was blown away by the mod musical which put visuals to the conceptual songs. It’s catchy as hell and beautifully captures Glasgow while making homage to the Beatles films of the 60’s. In its tranquil, twee fashion main character, young runaway Eve (Emily Browning), is a girl escaping to the big city during her hospitalization for anorexia. Director and band mate Stuart Murdoch perfectly encapsulates the emotions of a teenage girl lusting after boys and freedom paired with the persistent nature of the disorder. Eve tries to evade her illness that finds its way into song lyrics like “Musician, Please Take Heed” or impedes her normal abilities of having energy to go and have fun. Amongst the themes of friendship and self worth, Eve must come to terms with the need to get better and returns to the hospital to complete her recovery. It’s a genuine portrayal of what it’s like to carry on your day to day with the lingering anxieties of food and weight while still trying to have a good time.
1. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
There was a period of time in middle school where I would sight this Oscar bait drama set in a mental hospital as my favorite film. Years later I would realize the bizarre similarities between the film’s narrative and my own life. First, Interrupted was filmed in my home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania primarily at the State Hospital. While the source material is Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her stint in a Massachusetts’ psychiatric ward the movie never states its location but director James Mangold’s shots of the capital building and Market Street Bridge is all the proof I need. Secondly, I spent time in a hospital for my eating disorder when I was a freshman in high school. My story differs in the details as it was not a mental facility but for the more health complications of my disorder and I didn’t get to be the cool protagonist played by Winona Ryder but rather the binge and purge type that is Daisy (Brittany Murphy) sans her darker secrets. When I first saw this film and in subsequent rewatches, I didn’t understand Daisy’s odd behavior of hiding food and refusing to eat in front of others till I exhibited these mannerisms myself. These coincidences are what continue my deeper connection to this movie and also makes it harder to watch. It’s still fascinating as an account of how women’s health was viewed in the 60’s when anorexics and bulimics were thrown in with the insane. It’s also an accurate encapsulation of what the surreal environment of a prolonged hospital stay is like. Maybe if I had known the path my life was going to take, 12 year old me would have taken better notes.