It happens (at least to me) every year. You see a movie coming with a great cast, from directors you know and trust, but then it either gets caught up in the end-of-the-year rush or doesn't have quite enough star power to reach my little corner of the world.
That's what happened with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "It's Kind of a Funny Story," which I had been looking forward to for much of 2010 but only managed to catch up with recently on DVD. Like the duo's other two movies, "Half Nelson" and the far superior "Sugar" (one of my favorite baseball movies), it's a flick full of humanity and also small, easygoing charm, and so the kind that can easily slip through the cracks.
As the movie begins, we meet 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) on the day when the pressures of his teen life, overblown in his own mind, have driven him to the point where he thinks he's ready to commit suicide. Not exactly the funniest of subjects, right? But once he decides to check himself into a mental ward and, after telling the desk clerk he's considering suicide just gets handed a form to fill out, you can tell that Fleck and Boden, who wrote the script for this from the semiautobiographical tale by author Ned Vizzini, are going to gently walk a tightrope between unbearable solemnity and outright mockery for a middle ground that just worked for me.
When he tries to check in, Craig finds out he's being sent to the adult ward because the teen wing is under construction, and one of the first people he meets there is Bobby, a pleasantly low-key - for once - Zach Galifianakis. It isn't that he's turned off all the bluster that marks his brashest performances, but he instead channels all that mania and keeps it clearly simmering behind the wounded eyes of a man who, as he eventually tells Craig, has tried to commit suicide many times.
And though this is hardly a penetrating look at the true nature of mental illness, Boden and Fleck do stock the mental ward with charmingly damaged characters who give the movie plenty of humor but also lots of humanity along the way, from Craig's roommate Muqtada, who refuses to leave his room for most of the movie, to a hasidic jew who massively overdosed on acid. And of course, this being a teen movie, there has to be a love interest, fulfilled by Emma Roberts as Noelle who, like Craig, at that moment needs a reason to see the good sides of life.
But the real litmus test of how much you're going to enjoy "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is just how much you can stand Craig, an upper middle-class kid who, from the outset, clearly has many fewer real problems than he imagines. Again, however, Fleck and Boden handle this with a humorous and just dark enough touch, as when Craig first tries to explain his problems to Dr. Minerva, played by the always-welcome Viola Davis, and he lists his fear of terrorism and the sour economy as prominently as the parental pressure that's clearly driven him to this point.
The bottom line: This is indeed kind of a funny story, but a very human one too, and if you missed it the first time like me, it's well worth finding on DVD now.