It’s been a tough couple of years, to say the least. In fact, an estimated 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020, with major depressive disorder affecting approximately 17.3 million American adults. Depression is unique to everyone and can affect people differently, including feeling detached, down, hopeless, lost and alone, unmotivated, or all of the above. It can also make us feel like no one understands how we’re feeling. But this is where the communitive power of cinema comes in. Movies about depression are a powerful way of being seen and heard. We can identify with characters and stories which feel true to us and, as a result, feel less alone. There’s an honesty to these types of films that often comes from the filmmaker channeling their own mental health experience into their art. Seeing characters who are struggling and managing depression is also an excellent way of destigmatizing mental illness, helping to generate empathy and compassion from its audience.
If you’re dealing with symptoms from depression, watching movies about depression could help you feel more connected and give you insight into what it looks like for other people. It might also help your friends and family learn more about what you’re struggling with by offering an objective look at the experience. Therein lies the beauty of films that center depression. They highlight the part of it that is universal — the fact that depression sucks.
Although not an exhaustive list of this kind of cinema, the following films serve as a good place to start as they thoughtfully approach the conversation surrounding mental health and depression.
Movies That Really Understand Depression
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums offers a quirky take on depression that only Wes Anderson can do. The dysfunctional family features three siblings (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow) who peaked in their youth and are now dealing with depression as adults. It’s both a wry and raw look at mental illness.
2. All the Bright Places (2020)
Two teens (Dakota Fanning and Justice Smith) dealing with their own physical and mental scars and challenges meet each other and form a bond that gives them hope beyond their past.
3. Garden State (2004)
Zach Braff plays a man who returns home to attend his mom’s funeral and feels responsible for her death, spiraling him into depression. Natalie Portman offers support as his eccentric new friend, romantic interest, and a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This classic film from Charlie Kaufman depicts the emotional and mental toll of a breakup. It stars Jim Carrey as a man named Joel, who wants to do everything he can to feel better — including having a medical procedure to erase memories of his relationship with ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet).
5. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The comedy-drama features how depression and mental illness can affect a family differently. With the exception of Olive (Abigail Breslin), the titular character, the family test each other and lash out at each other in various ways as they also struggle to get Olive to her talent contest on time.
6. Precious (2009)
While this drama based on the novel Push by Sapphire and starring Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique isn’t primarily about depression, it does connect mental illness with drug and physical abuse and how toxic and abusive patterns continue to perpetuate without medical or financial resources.
7. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
This serious, thought-provoking drama goes into a deep exploration of depression and mental illness. Making the film even more poignant is the fact that it follows a father coping with depression and loss, and that father is played by the late Robin Williams (who dealt with depression in real life).
8. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
Sometimes depression isn’t a result of a traumatic experience but of something that comes slowly and steadily as it does with Keir Gilchrist’s character, who believes any failure or fault will mess up his potential and future. He checks himself into a mental hospital to seek help and meets a support system in Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis.
9. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This rom-com/drama stars Bradley Cooper as a football fanatic who has manic depressive disorder and Jennifer Lawrence as a grief-stricken woman who falls in love with him while struggling with her own mental health issues. Despite the odds, these two try to make it work, even entering a dance competition.
10. Cake (2014)
Jennifer Aniston plays a woman who suffers from chronic physical pain and depression after surviving a car crash that killed her son. Her feelings of hopelessness permeate throughout the film, which is tough to handle yet relatable.
11. Palm Springs (2020)
This romantic comedy starring Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg spins the feeling of being perpetually stuck in life into a winning comedy and sweet romance — with the possibility of a new beginning. While it may not look like a movie about depression on the surface, screenwriter Andy Siara has said it’s an allegory for depression and anxiety. Think of it as Groundhog Day meets Melancholia.
12. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Based on a novel by Stephen Chbosky, this coming-of-age film focuses on endearing outsider Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he experiences first love, the suicide of his best friend, and his own mental illness — all while trying to find “his people.”
13. Melancholia (2011)
This Lars von Trier film stars Kirsten Dunst as a woman living with debilitating depression who gets married just as a mysterious planet (aptly called Melancholia) threatens to collide with Earth. Of course, the apocalyptic film represents how utterly destructive depression can be in the lives of those who live with it. BBC writer Sophie Monks Kaufman perhaps captured it best in describing Melancholia, saying, “It is a film that, over the decade since its release, has become a kind of talisman for film fans who have experienced depression, such is the visceral power of its depiction. It is so powerful because it refuses to do what people in the grip of mental illness are often pressured to do: make the pain small.”
14. Sylvia (2003)
This film explores the exciting and literary life of poet Sylvia Plath. Before going off to college, her father passes away and Plath goes on to win several scholarships. She eventually marries Ted Hughes and after building a life together, she eventually separates from him due to his infidelity. Sylvia does an excellent job of showing the nuance and functionality of depression. It also illustrates just how dangerous it can be when left untreated.
14. A Star Is Born (2018)
At base value, A Star Is Born is a romantic film that follows music superstar Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper, and Ally, played by Lady Gaga. But upon further inspection, beneath the epic love affair and performances, is a story of untreated mental illness and depression. We watch Maine manage his pain with heavy drinking and drugs, and when he can no longer cope, he eventually meets a tragic end.
Other Realistic, Nuanced Movies About Depression
- Manchester By the Sea (2016)
- Prozac Nation (2001)
- Anomalisa (2015)
- The Skeleton Twins (2014)
- Helen (2009)
- Numb (2007)
- The Hours (2002)
- Requiem for a Dream (2000)
- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
- Lilting (2014)
- Mad Love (1995)
- Mary and Max (2009)
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911. You are not alone.
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