Mental illness must certainly be a complex subject to adapt to film, particularly to a comedy. Former attempts have sometimes tended toward either the maudlin or the idealistic, failing to capture the realities of living with mental health problems. Broken Diamonds attempts to break new ground in this area, with a film released July 23 in cinemas and on demand. Peter Sattler, who directed the harsh but touching 2014 Guantanamo Bay Prison drama Camp X Ray, presents a family comedy/drama that includes mental illness, not as something either horrifying or quickly overcome, but as one of life’s more distressing and tenacious complications. Sattler commented, “No other film has dealt with the topic of schizophrenia like Broken Diamonds does – this film makes it real.” Part of that realism is the acceptance that mental illness can be funny as well as tragic.
The central character is Scott Weaver (Ben Platt), a talented and ambitious young writer, planning to relocate to Paris. His life becomes complicated when his father dies, leaving him responsible for his older sister, Cindy (Lola Kirke), a schizophrenic living in a managed care facility. When Cindy is evicted from her residence, Scott reluctantly lets her move in with him, throwing his life further and further into chaos. The film’s first act is a largely mild screwball comedy, in which Scott’s carefully arranged existence and plans are constantly disrupted by Cindy’s presence and the unpredictable outbreaks of her condition, which cause Scott endless dismay, inconvenience, and embarrassment.
Scott’s conflicts with his sister are funny, if sometimes in a dark way, but the scenes are also strikingly honest and straightforward in their portrayal of Cindy’s illness. This is by design, as director Sattler remarks: “In addition to being entertaining, the goal is to have this film break the stigma of mental illness by showing the truth behind it.” The truth which is first revealed is the difficulty endured by the family of the mentally ill patient, represented by the exasperated Scott. Cindy emerges as a full character, a real person apart from her illness, only later in the film, as her relationship with her brother develops and their family background is revealed bit by bit.
The essential heart of the film is the screenplay, which was inspired by the experiences of its creator, Steve Waverly, who has written for film, television, and the theatre. He was moved to write Broken Diamonds by his own relationship with his sister and by his frustration with the media portrayal of mental illness, which he felt was rarely realistic. A statement by the director describes Waverly’s intention to send the message “that schizophrenia is a devastating disease that destroys families, and it’s important for people to understand that those afflicted with mental illness aren’t to blame.” In fact, the film does allow Cindy to take the blame, initially, for the trouble she causes, as she drags her disgruntled brother through a series of minor disasters and social fiascos. The audience is allowed to see Cindy at first through Scott’s eyes, as the unrestrained, annoyingly capricious individual he perceives as unapologetically throwing his life into disarray and indulging in irrational acts. During the first act, Cindy is, in fact, as aggravating to the viewer as she is to Scott himself, and it is easy to sympathise with his impatience as we laugh at his efforts to get the situation under control. But the story takes things further.
The plot, and the film’s point of view, begin to take a turn when Cindy is approached in public by an old school friend, now an up-and-coming actress, who has not seen Cindy for many years. The friend exclaims over how incredibly bright and talented Cindy had been and how successful she must surely have become by now, and later recalling Cindy’s college romance with a handsome young classmate. Her innocent inquiry about why Cindy hasn’t been seen in so long suggests the painful answer: Cindy ‘disappeared’ when she became schizophrenic and was institutionalised. The scene is made effective by Lola Kirke’s performance; her subtle reactions give great poignancy to the encounter, as we see Cindy recall the promising and hopeful young woman she once was – and ceased to be – as she scrambles to give appropriate responses to her friend’s questions. While Cindy does not become more controlled or easier to tolerate, it is at this point that we begin to see things from her perspective as well as her brother’s.
The remainder of the film takes its time making its point and showing us what it needs to. As Scott struggles in vain to keep his life on its former course, Cindy copes with the stresses in her life by going off her medication and eventually running amok, in episodes that veer from the comical to the frightening. In the process, we are given glimpses of their childhood and family life which put their current relationship in perspective. The story becomes far less comic and much more dramatic as Cindy’s grief and declining mental health, and Scott’s frustration with her, come to a head. With the help of remaining family members and of Cindy’s former therapist, the siblings manage to find a point of contact in a brutally realistic but positive final act.
Lola Kirke’s portrayal of Cindy holds the film together, giving the character the necessary, difficult balance of pathos, pain, confusion, and absurd comedy. Ben Platt as Scott lives up to the standard she sets, funny but sympathetic as the put-upon man furious at having his life upended by, as he sees it, an irresponsible and flighty relative exploiting her condition. He makes the character genuinely moving as he comes to understand and sympathise with his sister and finds a way to cross the distance that had grown between them. Adding a great deal to the film is the delicate supporting performance by Yvette Nicole Brown as Cookie, the siblings’ stepmother; and Catherine Lough Haggquist in a small but effective role as Cindy’s therapist, who tries to offer Scott guidance in dealing with his sister’s erratic behaviour. All the characters are well rounded and highly sympathetic, and Peter Sattler’s direction makes the very most of both the excellent script and the skilful performances.
The co-lead actors prepared for the roles by speaking with people involved with mental health, immersing themselves in documentaries on the subject, in an effort to make their characters genuine. Meanwhile, the filmmakers interviewed psychiatric experts and schizophrenia societies in preparation for filming, all of which no doubt added to the authenticity of the finished product.
As the filmmakers suggest, it is the movie’s devotion to realism that keeps it on course and makes it particularly worthwhile. Even at its most upbeat or comedic, the film never underplays the seriousness of Cindy’s illness, and the conclusion offers no empty hope that her condition will significantly improve. The only helpful change, it is suggested, is in those around her, who learn to accept and forgive. As director Sattler observes: “The film encourages people to be more understanding about this illness, and to realise that when it comes to schizophrenia, there are no antagonists, only victims. The antagonist is the mean and nasty illness itself. Most important is that this is the first honest and true screenplay to look at the disease this way.”
Its honesty is accompanied by a genuinely entertaining story that makes its message not only palatable but enjoyable.