Whilst serviceable in a studio-indie, Little Miss Sunshine kind of way, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story proves an unexpected disappointment and the weakest film so far from directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Their much admired debut Half Nelson (2006) offered a startling portrait of a heroin-addicted school teacher fighting for the welfare of one of his pupils and earned actor Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination. Their follow-up Sugar (2008) was even stronger, a laceration of the American dream masquerading as an all-American sports-underdog tale, it served to make Fleck and Boden talents to watch. They’ve always, however, had a propensity for an ‘inspirational’ scene, which until now has generally been well-written enough and (more importantly) well-earned to be forgiven within the context of the narratives, but with It’s Kind Of A Funny Story the Joycean adage that sentimentality is an unearned emotion is keenly felt and whilst likeable, has little sense of authorship, treading a line between realism, mawkishness and whimsy.
Sixteen year old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) checks himself into the psychiatric ward at Argenon Hospital after one too many suicidal thoughts. Finding the junior ward closed, Craig is placed in the adult wing for the five days he’ll be there and is taken under the wing of Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a rebellious long-term patient soon to be released. There’s also the cute but troubled Noelle (Emma Roberts), filling the quirky-indie-chick role to help poor Craig find himself. It’s a fine line between Konchalovsky (see House Of Fools, 2002 – ugh!) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) when portraying the inmates of a psychiatric unit and whilst for the most part credibly drawn they’re often played for comedic effect, with only a few benefiting from even the most basic kind of characterisation.
It looks good, has a great soundtrack and is well performed by the leads, it just lacks any bite whatsoever and sticks rigidly to the predictable narrative and emotional journey so common in institutionalised ‘independent’ American cinema today, those films with a pretentiously quirky vibe that may have been fresh at Sundance twenty years ago, but are now being churned out by the likes of Fox Searchlight to ever-diminishing returns.
It has whimsical flights of fancy familiar from (500) Days Of Summer (2009) as Craig’s drawings form animated sequences and what could have been an awkward but touching moment in a music therapy class becomes a bizarre glam-rock stage performance, completely out of kilter with the more realist overall approach.
As an exploration of teenage anxieties it has little new to say, Craig’s family are simply caricatures and whilst Zach Galifianakis is a pleasure to watch, his interplays with Craig (particularly when imparting some kind of ‘wisdom’)in the second half of the picture are often cringingly trite. Emma Roberts doesn’t fare much better, she’s clearly a talented actress but her character is a broadly drawn cliché and their relationship arc is predictable to the letter.
As indie comedies go, this is middle-of-the-road stuff, enjoyable but sentimental and vaguely dissatisfying, but as the next picture from Fleck & Boden, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is a major disappointment, one which I hope proves merely a mis-step and not one towards mainstream appeal.
It’s Kind Of A Funny Story – 2010 – USA – 101 mins – Dir : Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Screening as part of the Film On The Square strand of the London Film Festival on Tuesday 19th, Wednesday 20th & Thursday 21st October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff