Based on the pseudo-memoir of the same name by Ned Vizzini, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” follows a high school student named Craig (newcomer Kier Gilchrist) from his hasty decision to have himself committed for fear he’ll commit suicide to his realization that maybe things aren’t so bad. What could have been treacly and/or self-pitying is instead an amusing tale of young man going through growing pains.
The film was adapted and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a filmmaking duo who have made three very different films in four years. Their debut, “Half Nelson,” about a drug-addicted teacher, helped establish Ryan Gosling as a force. Their sophomore effort, “Sugar,” was a tragic tale--told mostly in Spanish--about a Dominican baseball player trying to make it to the major leagues. Though it’s about a suicidal teen, “Funny Story” is decidedly lighter fare.
The child of a successful father (Jim Gaffigan doing the distracted, type-A dad thing surprisingly well) and loving mother (Lauren Graham, apparently having accepted her lot in life as the hot mom), Craig buckles under the pressure of getting into Manhattan's best high school, an endless buffet of extracurricular and the major jones he feels for his best friend's girlfriend.
Gilchrist, best known for his work on “The United States of Tara,” meets the primary qualification for playing a tortured teen: he’s an actual teen, which goes a long way toward making him believable. Rather than wasting his talents trying to act 16, he’s playing the part: confused and sad and tortured and horny.
Strangely, it is during his week in a psyche ward that Craig, at the age of 16, first discovers he can draw and sing pretty damn well. Which is ridiculous of course, these are not the kinds of gifts that spring forth fully formed. But these clumsy attempts at character development are made forgivable by the fact that they inspired some inventive filmmaking from Boden and Fleck.
This history of cinema is littered with awkward performances from comedians trying to do drama (see: Carrey, Jim; Williams, Robin), so it's with great trepidation that one welcomes Zach Galifianakis to the proceedings. Arguably the funniest guy working in film and television right now, Galifinakis is the rare comedian who can play both broad and subtle successfully. He brings that same range to bear here, a man whose depression has repeatedly driven him to the brink. But Galifianakis never goes maudlin, staring into the camera begging for your empathy, instead keeping his sorrow measured and real.
Boden and Fleck are two of the bolder young filmmakers working today, and if this “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is their misstep, they’ve got a great future. With all its faults, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” plays out like a good John Hughes film if it were covered by an indie rock band.