Depression is a serious medical illness where sufferers feel trapped and bombarded by overwhelmingly negative feelings. Symptoms of depression can range from a mild lack of enthusiasm to crippling negative feelings and even suicidal thoughts. Many filmmakers concerned with the human experience have portrayed various aspects of depression on screen. The movies are terrific empathic vehicle.
Since movies pass by in real time, especially when viewed uninterrupted as in a dark theater, they can inspire intense feelings. In this way, movies are incredibly useful for helping viewers understand something about the way other people feel. However, in the movies, one thing leads to another and actions are often explicit and easy to understand. Movies thrive when presenting cause-and-effect and moment-building stories and that isn’t always the way that life works. It’s important to remember that narrative movies tell stories and stories have endings, whereas real life is much more complex and lasts much longer than two hours.
Film stories often engage in Hollywood fantasy, where things work out or bold gestures turn things around. The best movies about depression can offer a window into how depression feels, but they do not necessarily have answers about how to deal with this painful medical condition. It is important to remember that if you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of depression, consult a psychotherapist with experience dealing with mental health issues.
Keep this in mind as you review this list of the best movies about depression.
1. A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937, George Cukor, 1954, Frank Pierson, 1976, and Bradley Cooper, 2018)
Failing to deal with life’s many disappointments is one of the hallmarks of depression. At its heart, A Star Is Born is a story about a very intense relationship and the pain and heartache of not being able to help the person you love when they are depressed and unable to cope with professional setbacks.
Known as one of the best movies about depression, the film is said to have began its life as a cautionary Hollywood tale about what happens when one spouse eclipses the other. Some have pointed to the troubled marriage of actress Barbara Stanwyck and comedian Frank Fay as an inspiration for dialogue in the original film, but the scenario had inspired an earlier film called What Price Hollywood? (1932). Each of these films offers a complex portrait of the highs and lows in a relationship plagued by depression.
2. World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)
Comedian and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad offers a bittersweet and darkly comic with an uncompromising view of death, grief, depression and other mental health issues. This is one of the best movies about depression, starring Goldthwait’s long-time friend Robin Williams as a father to an unlikeable teenage son who has died in a tragic solo sexual misadventure gone awry.
When the father finds his son, he restages the death as a suicide and experiences an outpouring of community support that ultimately feels hollow.
3. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding 1947)
In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays a man dragged into the world of a low-down world of a travelling carnival and alcoholism. The film is about the depths to which a person can sink as depression closes off alternatives and makes it impossible to hold onto a sense of self.
The world of Nightmare Alley dramatically recreates the no-escape desperation of depression, and harrowing to watch. Nightmare Alley belongs to an American film cycle labeled film noir by French film critics who were only able to see American movies from the World War II long after the war. These movies emerged from a world at war that had just endured more than a decade of economic dislocation the Great Depression.
4. What About Bob? (Frank Oz, 1991)
Depression and a host of other mental ailments are given light treatment in the hilarious comedy What About Bob?, in which popular psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) takes on Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), a difficult patient, just before a family vacation to New Hampshire. Bob follows Dr. Marvin on vacation, and quickly befriends everyone he meets including the doctor’s family. The film is essentially a roadrunner cartoon (Wiley or Wile-E?) set in the world of cognitive behavioural therapy.
5. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) & Ali: Fear Eats Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
Douglas Sirk was a master of Hollywood melodrama, which are films of intense emotions. In Sirk’s films, the total emotional world of the characters is visible on screen in dramatic colours. German New Wave director Fassbinder was a Sirk devotee and he played an important role in the rediscovery of Sirk’s 1950s melodramas. Ali: Fear Eats Soul is essentially a remake of the earlier film, and both films tell the story of depressed lonely women who find happiness in the arms of a partner that society deems inappropriate.
In Heaven, this is a younger man of lower social standing. In Ali, a German washerwoman falls in love with a young Moroccan immigrant. Both films illustrate the depths of the emotional pain people experience when they are at odds with society.
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Though based in fantasy, It’s a Wonderful Life has an important message about depression and life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who is forced to put his dreams aside as he deals with family responsibilities, running on the local savings and loan. When the S&L’s money goes missing, Bailey is understandably driven to extremes, sure that the only way out is suicide. He tries to throw himself off a bridge only to be interrupted by an angel named Clarence.
Capra’s Christmas fantasy masterpiece offers a vision of one possible way out of depression: finding one’s place in the world with supportive friends. A network of support is the root of many twelve step programs and managed in a supportive and caring environment by a professional, can help with many mental health disorders.