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‘Gabriel’ and Why We Need a More Realistic Depiction of Mental Illness (with Exclusive Clip)

'Gabriel' and Why We Need a More Realistic Depiction of Mental Illness (with Exclusive Clip)

When I first sat down to write what would eventually become “Gabriel,” I had no idea what I was doing. Well, I had an inkling of a plan, a writing exercise really, but to look back at that first step and realize now that it eventually led to a feature film that people are about to sit in a movie theater and watch is thoroughly amazing. 

READ MORE: Review: Why the Moody Drama ‘Gabriel’ is Rory Culkin’s Best Performance

I was in my last year of film school, grinding out short films that I felt little connection to, so I decided to try writing something as personal as possible. I wanted to feel something about what I was working on again. So I thought about the experiences in my life that had made the biggest emotional impact on me, and immediately thought of a close friend I grew up with. Watching him battle with his mental health since we were teenagers has been a painful experience and seeing his family struggle to help him made an even deeper impact. I had often wondered what his experience of the world was like – we grew up in such similar circumstances, and our adult lives were so vastly different in a completely opaque way. So I tried to write about it. 

I started with first-person journals, written from the point of view of someone in my friend’s position, but that character quickly became Gabe, the title character of the eventual script. He asserted himself immediately, and the fictional world of the story grew from there. And as I wrote, moving from the journals to exploratory, structure-less scene work, the story took shape up. At its core, “Gabriel” is a coming-of-age narrative. The title character has been watching from a distance as his friends and older brother move into adulthood, and he longs to join them. Just like any of us imagining our future selves, he has hopes and dreams, and makes plans to achieve them. But unlike the classic narrative arc of obstacles overcome and lessons learned, Gabe’s idea of “growing up” is fundamentally unrealistic, and so his skewed perception of the world creates a very different narrative. 

Grounding the story in Gabe’s shifting perspective naturally lends itself to a story driven by suspense. As we follow him on his journey, the audience is never sure what Gabe is capable of, let alone what we think of him. While he might seem charming or quirky at first, his behavior slowly becomes unsettling, even scary. His unpredictability and the constant potential for danger provide the tension that drives the film forward. But as we really get to know the character and understand his simple and universal goals – love, stability, a life he can be proud of – our fear is replaced by understanding and compassion.

As the story evolved, it always felt like a small, intimate project, one that grew out of a desire to share this very personal experience from my own life that affected me deeply, in the hopes that it would affect an audience in a similar way. But as I researched more, reading first-person accounts of struggles with psychosis, sharing the script with psychiatrists and visiting mental health facilities, I started to realize the scope of the issues surrounding the film and the story we were telling. Lead actor Rory Culkin and I sat down with several young people struggling with their own mental health, who were incredibly open and generous with their own stories and struggles, and really opened our eyes to how many versions of our story there are out there. 

And as we’ve been showing the film at festivals over the past year or so, it consistently surprises me how many people come up to us to share their own stories of personal struggles with their own mental health, or with loved ones. Many tell us how authentic the movie feels, which, to me, is really the ultimate compliment. Even close friends, people I’ve known for years, have opened up about their own family histories and how they relate to the film, and I’ve realized that, just like me, everyone knows a Gabriel somewhere in their lives. It’s been an amazing experience of the movie really starting a dialogue, or in reality, joining this ongoing conversation surrounding mental health, and hopefully adding to it. 

Media portrayals of mental illness, and there are plenty, from films to news coverage, often stigmatize those struggling with their mental health as dangerous or inhuman. While I never attempted to make a polemical statement about the social issue, I’ve come to realize that “Gabriel” can help combat that stigma. My goal was always to bring one character’s specific story to screen as authentically as possible, and by doing so, to provide the audience with the kind of empathetic connection that only a movie can create. The hope is that through the lens of this character’s journey, the audience can begin to see themselves on screen. Gabe’s version of adulthood may be refracted through the prism of mental illness, and the film may be driven by an engine of suspense, but fundamentally, “Gabriel” is a universal story of one young man trying to grow up. More than anything, I hope the movie will make people feel something the way it made me. 

Lou Howe (Writer/Director) was recently named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for 2013. His debut feature film, “Gabriel,” stars Rory Culkin and premiered in competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. The project was awarded an Annenberg Feature Film Grant by the Sundance Institute, as well as financial support from Cinereach, and was one o ten projects selected for the IFP Narrative Labs. His most recent short film “My First Claire” screened internationally at several festivals and was named a National Finalist for the Student Academy Awards. He is a graduate of Harvard and the MFA Directing program at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles. “Gabriel” will open theatrically on June 19.

READ MORE: Rory Culkin On Being ‘Incredibly Sensitive’ While Shooting ‘Gabriel’

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