It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a quiet coming-of-age story about a 16 year-old named Craig. Based on the novel by the same name by Ned Vizzini and written and directed for the screen by Amy Boden and Ryan Fleck, the story centres around Craig after cracking under the pressure of the American dream for teens: be in love and get into an Ivy League school. After a suicidal dream, he manages to get himself admitted into a psych ward for five days.
One of the few thoughtful parts of Funny Story is Craig’s description to his therapist of his maturing process. He tells her that it seems like he has gone from carefree to suddenly shocked into the awareness of two wars, environmental catastrophe, girls, grades, work-world pressure, and an economic depression. The Dr tells him to not worry about the things he can’t change, which, at first glance seems healthful, but the motion of her advice is unparticipatory. So, although Craig gives a great description of what it is like to suddenly enter the adult world and be socially and globally aware, he is essentially told to disengage himself from that world and retreat into himself.
This sleight of hand is a huge cultural trend that one can see everywhere. According to popular philosopher Slavoj Žižek, the trend had its beginning with the 60s movement where the exploration of pleasure and the Real took three main forms: extreme forms of sexual pleasure, acts of violence to disturb the capitalist masses, and the Real of the inner life – mysticism. What they all have in common, writes Žižek, is the “withdrawal from concrete socio-political engagement into a direct contact with the Real” – or, in other words, a shift from political engagement to a “post-political Real.”
The downfall of this disengagement as a cultural trend, of course, is a grand political disempowerment in favour of private interests. Another example of this tendency is the film American History X where Derrick (Edward Norton), as a neo-Nazi, rages over sharp social problems. What ends up being this character’s salvation is not a different kind of social engagement or even a refutation of his concerns but rather a complete withdrawal from the social sphere because, as he says, he doesn’t want to feel angry anymore. Funny Story participates in the same withdrawal that can’t help but align itself with the apathy that threatens us in very real terms.
A much more apparent oddity of Funny Story is how much suicide and depression is brought up, on one hand, and how little it is actually delved into, on the other. By the end, we cannot really believe that Craig was depressed or suicidal at all. We see him subdued but never depressed. We see no signs of anger, which is so integral to depression. We only see him vomit with nervousness. He is only really dejected when losing a love interest and then blithe when he has another one. Slowly but surely, we realize we’ve been sucked into a petty teenage drama.
Conversely, Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis, is played superbly and we really see his layers, his anger, and his pain. Even still, we don’t know why Bobby has tried to kill himself six times or if he is past trying to or not. Adding more to the blanks, Craig’s love-interest – who also attempted suicide – shows no signs of maladjustment and certainly no indication of why suicide was an option for her. Without filling in this content, the characters are shallow and there simply isn’t much drama as there is nothing at stake and little to feel for.
Although Funny Story is intended as a light coming of age story, it would have benefited a great deal from touching on the real pain around depression and suicide enough to let the audience have its catharsis when jocund day returns with a pair of bright eyes. At least Bobby is amusing enough to make Craig’s teenage drama and swift return to well-being bearable.