The wife wanted to go see Love and Mercy this past weekend, and wanting to be a good husband, off we went to the theater! If you’re not familiar with Love and Mercy, it is the story of former Beach Boy Brian Wilson and his mental illness. The film cuts back and forth between a youthful Wilson, played by Paul Dano, prior to his illness leaving him famously lying in bed for 2-3 years, and the future Wilson, played by John Cusack, who lives under the complete control of his psychiatrist, Dr. Landry after his deep psychosis has left him disconnected from his own family .
Now admittedly, not being huge Beach Boys fan, I was only faintly aware of Brian’s story. I knew about the stay in bed, and the battle with his psychiatrist later in life, but none of the details, which the movie did a good job of filling in for me. My main concern though, as the movie went on, was would it be a realistic portrayal of mental illness? I’ve seen far too many movies that don’t do a good job with that, and even though this is a true story, I wondered how much it would be either cleaned up to make it more palatable for the audience, or blown up to make it seem more extreme. Luckily, I don’t think either storyline really did that.
Yes, you get to watch Dano, as Brian, become obsessed with his music and quieting the voices in his head, eventually giving in to delusions about his house being bugged as he delved into the late 60s drug scene. You also get to watch a desperate Cusack leave a plea for help with a woman who sells him a car, and the very first time you meet Dr. Gene Landry, you can tell that he is completely controlling Brian for his own gain. None of that is a huge surprise, but the pleasant surprise, for me, came in watching those two stories unfold without feeling like it was being glamorized in some way to make for a more interesting story.
One thing that probably helped, in a weird way, was having the two stories interwoven like that. I think it added to the feeling of watching someone dealing with mental illness because that is sort of how mental illness works. When I look back at my childhood, and the times in my adult life where my depression had taken hold, it’s not a smooth timeline of memory, it’s a disjointed series of individual events. So, the way the story was told actually made sense to me. More on that later.
The one thing that I became most concerned about as the movie went on, however, was whether this was to be a case of portraying Brian as someone who just needed to get off meds and then he’d really be fine, but again, after he does get away from Dr. Landry, and before the credits roll, the filmmakers do a good job of letting the audience know that Brian still had to get treatment, and medication. He was able to get back to living his own life and even create music again after he had gotten a correct diagnosis and continue treatment for that diagnosis. Again, as a sufferer of mental illness in my past, one who was helped tremendously by treatment and medication when it was needed, I was glad to see them not go down that route, and I was glad to see them also not endorse the idea that creativity can’t go hand in hand with treatment. In Brian’s case it certainly has in his later years.
One last thing that I found interesting was that this movie also started conversation, at least with me. In talking to my wife afterwards, I did wonder if the dual timelines was confusing for her, despite the fact that, again, as a former mental patient myself, that made it all the more real. She admitted that it was odd at first, but having two different actors play Brian actually made it a bit easier to follow. I do wonder if that was done on purpose, but I also have to admit that Dano and Cusack both did excellent jobs of portraying Wilson at different points in his illness. The other conversation we had was about a scene in a restaurant, when Brian talks to Melinda, whom he barely knows, about his father and the physical abuse he suffered at his father’s hands. All of Brian’s lack of social skills are on full display as he clearly over shares, and the other folks at the table even get up and walk away. I wondered if that conversation was that weird and awkward when we had it years ago. (She swears it wasn’t, but also that it was not exactly a comfortable conversation to have, and probably wouldn’t ever be.)
Maybe, as I look at Brian Wilson’s story, and this movie, that’s the best thing we can hope for. That a reasonable portrayal of mental illness, not to mention child abuse, will lead to more conversations about the topics. As someone who dealt with mental illness, I’ll admit, the movie was not easy to watch. There were times when it felt a little too familiar, you know? But I’d rather have that realism in it than have mental illness portrayed in a way that doesn’t do anything to advance the conversation.