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Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp / 24 April 2012

flyer image portraying the three main characters in the film Benny and Joon

From right to left: Benny (Aidan Quinn) Juniper

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I recently came across Benny and Joon, as part of my film course. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik and released in 1993, this movie is a typically Hollywood representation of mental illness, despite being an enjoyable romantic comedy/drama. The character of Joon is said to be suffering from a mental illness, but it is unclear what she is suffering from; she is only referred to as “mentally ill”. Psychology students have suggested different diagnoses, one suggesting she is an “obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic”.

Joon, played by Mary Stewart Masterson, lives with her brother, Benny and he appreciates that she has a unique way of seeing the world and is a very talented artist. Her mental illness causes her to be over-dependent on her brother, and for Benny to be very over-protective of her. Joon also causes problems for him. For instance she has a habit of setting things on fire. Subsequently he believes he cannot leave her alone and so hardly ever leaves the house.

Then there is the entrance of Sam, a quirky character, played by Johnny Depp. His clownish antics seem to help Joon’s mood, and keeps her bad days to a minimum. The calming affect he has on her seems clichéd, as not all romantic involvements have such an effect when someone is really suffering from mental illness. Her illness never seems to be too problematic; it seems that she is more quirky and interesting rather than really mentally ill. She is faced with a more severe symptom of illness, when she and Sam try leave town on a bus when she has a panic attack. However, this is the only large-scale problem she is seen dealing with.

After this incident, she is taken to the mental hospital, where she wishes to stay as an in-patient. However, Sam and Benny reason with her and she makes a decision to try and live by herself. She is able to get over her dependency on Benny, and he stops being over-protective of her.

Her being able to live as an out-patient seems fitting to the safe way in which mental illness is portrayed in the movie. The film never explores what illness she has or how the medication affects her, in any depth. Any such problems she might face in daily life are seen from a distance glance and not from her point of view.

The mental health system is portrayed in a good light. Money is never brought up, never saying how much it would cost to be an in-patient, or how much the psychotherapy is costing Benny, which is notoriously expensive.

At the end of the film, Joon and Sam are shown to be happy in an apartment, ironing toast. They are both quirky – implying that they are living with mental illness, without fully entering that world. Although, the film does show the strain of the family and the conflicts they face when pressured by doctors to put their loved ones into a mental health facility, it does not push any boundaries. Largely it offers a very safe representation of mental illness.

Keywords: depression,disability representation,film,mental health