Mental Illness Missteps in ‘WELCOME TO ME’
Last fall, we wrote about the new Kristin Wiig movie, Welcome to Me, featuring Wiig as Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder (BPD) who wins the lottery and decides to mount a television show dedicated entirely to discussing herself. The film has now hit the wide release phase, which also means it's hit the widely-reviewed phase, and while Welcome to Me has plenty of fans who praise it's biting satirical themes and dark humor, it is also being criticized for that most common of all cinematic crimes: the inaccurate and/or disrespectful (not to mention plain old unhelpful) portrayal of mental illness.
A parasol AND a giant swan? Uh-oh. Things are looking wacky.
It first must be noted that screenwriter Eliot Laurence did himself no favors by choosing a deeply complex mental illness with which to characterize Alice, played by Wiig, who — while having proven herself a solid actor in many respects, is still a comedian at heart. Alice's life and behavior deviates from the norm in ways that line up with BPD, but these ways are presented in a fashion that suggests it's okay to laugh at Alice. Her actions are outrageous, which is funny, but those outrageous actions are the result of a serious mental illness, which is not funny at all. Wiig has shown that she has the chops to give a complex and layered performance, but the opportunity to do so simply isn't there. Is it impossible to create a character with BPD in a way that doesn't turn your film into a plodding, overwrought, over-realistic drama? Of course not. But it is tricky, and Welcome to Me isn't up to the challenge.
For a clearer idea of what this film got wrong (and how it might have gotten it right), I checked out some reviewers who have a keen sensitivity to portrayals of mental illness onscreen. Chris Eggertsen notes that "[w]hile I doubt it was Piven's goal to make Alice the butt of the joke, that's how the movie plays, and I can think of nothing less funny than to point a finger and laugh at a person who suffers from mental illness. …Given that Alice is one of the only 'openly' BPD characters audiences are likely to see depicted on screen, this represents a great misstep on the part of the film. Had it offered us a deeper look into Alice's pain, some entry into seeing the world through her eyes, it could have actually done some good. As a person who has experienced the earth-shattering effects of BPD firsthand, the fact that even I felt nothing for Alice is telling of the film's failures."
Reviewer Edwin Arnaudin deems Welcome to Me "wholly disrespectful," and suggests that the addition of "a scene or two respectfully conveying why a talk show is Alice's dream, along with a few other tweaks, Welcome to Me might have achieved the oddball comedic style it strives for yet completely fails to attain." Alonso Duralde echoes the sentiment that the film bites off more than it can chew with such a character, noting that "[w]hile Wiig’s mentally-ill narcissist makes for another captivating entry in her gallery of complicated women, the movie itself doesn’t seem entirely sure about what to do with her." Duralde also questions whether Alice is even a suitable character for this type of feature, observing that "[t]here’s a sketch, or a short film, or even an Adult Swim series to be mined from these characters and situations, but as a feature film, Welcome to Me comes off like taunting followed by hugs, where neither feels genuine."
It seems fitting, then, to conclude that Welcome to Me is another swing and a miss when it comes to mental illness onscreen, but there are positive points not to be missed here: Alice might be an audience member's first exposure to someone (however fictional) who struggles with BPD, and from all accounts, the strain that Alice's condition puts on those close to her is quite accurate to those who deal with BPD friends and family in real life. If the movie helps even one person learn a little more about BPD or feel less alone in their real-life BPD experiences, then all is not lost with Welcome to Me…as long as we can all acknowledge we still have plenty of room for improvement.
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