Few movies have gotten mental illness right, preferring to treat it as a quirk (“The Dream Team”), an affectation (“Henry and Joon”) or a menace (most horror movies). There’s a great movie coming out this spring called “Infinitely Polar Bear,” starring Mark Ruffalo as a father dealing with bipolar disorder. He doesn’t defeat mental illness at the end of the film, and it doesn’t defeat him, because that’s not what happens. He just lives with it, through good days and rough days, like any other chronic disease.
Jono Oliver’s “Home” is another film that gets it right. The affecting and low-key drama skips past the usual dramatic scenes of someone who has suffered a psychotic breakdown, instead showing us the quieter but more convincing struggle of someone trying to piece his life back together afterwards.
Given its authenticity, it’s no surprise that the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Wisconsin is sponsoring a screening of “Home” on Thursday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. The screening is free, although audience members are encouraged to make donations and to pre-register online. Oliver will take part in a meet-and-greet session before the film at 5:30 p.m. and a Q&A afterwards. And, in a late announcement, the film’s star, Gbenga Akinnagbe, is also flying into Madison for the Barrymore event. (If you can’t make the screening, “Home” is also on Netflix.)
Fans of “The Wire” may recognize Akinnagbe as Chris Partlow, the scary right-hand man to drug dealer Marlo from that HBO show. Then again, they might not recognize him — Akinnabge’s performance as Jack in “Home” is so different, and so thoroughly lived-in, that it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor. Jack is a man living with schizophrenia in a group home in New York City (we only see the violent episode that put him there in flashback).
Jack is on the precipice of leaving the home and getting his own place, and the film explores that scary and exhilarating moment. Jack needs to prove himself to everyone that he’s okay, from his dismissive father (Joe Morton) to the home’s officious doctor (James McDaniel of “NYPD Blue”) to his skeptical wife and son. Ever try and act “normal” to the world around you? It’s tremendously stressful for Jack, whose mental health is recovering but fragile, and Akinnagbe shows the struggle going on beneath Jack’s carefully controlled exterior.
Much of the drama in “Home” comes from looking at the world through Jack’s eyes, and seeing how we perceive those with mental illness. Is Jack really ready to be self-sufficient again, or is he pushing himself too far too fast? Is he not ready, or are we not ready? Oliver’s film refreshingly strips away a lot of the stigma surrounding mental health, but doesn’t simplify or sugarcoat the challenge either for Jack or the people around him.
Some of the scenes in Jack’s group therapy session are enjoyable and even funny (especially another “Wire” alum, Isaiah Whitlock, aka Rep. Clay Davis, as a fellow patient). Oliver does have a weakness for overly showy stylistic touches at times, such as the slo-mo dream sequence that opens the film. “Home” is much better when it avoids the film-school showiness and just gives us Akinnagbe’s understated, poignant performance.