READ MORE: Review: Brian Wilson Portrait ‘Love & Mercy’ Isn’t Your Average Biopic
In Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” the mental breakdown of Beach Boys star Brian Wilson is sensitively followed over the the course of decades, featuring a dual performance by Paul Dano and John Cusack in different eras of the Beach Boys’ frontman’s complicated life. The film doesn’t follow a traditional biopic format, and that extends to its message about mental health, which is handled in a surprisingly realistic way — one that eschews the kind of neatly-packaged happy ending that other biopics often fall back on.
That approach has also informed the film’s awards season platform, as the “Love & Mercy” team has used the attention paid to the feature to spotlight the need for better mental health initiatives and a more compassionate approach to those who suffer from mental illness.
Wilson himself and his wife Melinda (played in Pohlad’s film by Elizabeth Banks) recently partnered with the Campaign to Change Direction, a national initiative to change the culture of mental health in America.
The Campaign page includes a statement from Wilson about his family’s desire “not only to bring awareness to the mental health issues faced by millions of Americans, but also to encourage everyone to learn the Five Signs of emotional suffering…It’s time for us to bring the conversation of mental health in America out of the shadows, and the Campaign to Change Direction is leading the way.”
The rest of the “Love & Mercy” team has also become involved in the campaign. Dano and Pohlad were both present at the announcement of the Wilsons’ partnership, and a November 4 concert featuring Wilson included appearances from Dano and Cusack. Banks has been taken part: The actress recently participated in a special screening of the film in support of mental health awareness at George Washington University in October, which Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman also attended.
At a luncheon held in the film’s honor yesterday at Manhattan’s 21 Club, the “Love & Mercy” principal cast and crew — including director Pohlad, screenwriter Moverman, and stars Cusack, Dano and Banks — participated in a half-hour chat moderated by Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen about the film. One topic that stood out was how the film unsparingly documents Wilson’s battle with schizoaffective disorder, and the way that has inspired the film’s talent to participate in discussions about mental healthy beyond the film itself.
“What really grabbed me was Brian’s struggle as a human being,” Pohlad said. “We wanted to really delve into the human side of it, and when you delve into the human side with Brian, obviously there’s a lot of issues there from the mental health standpoint.”
It was a tricky balance. “You don’t want it to be a movie about this weird crazy guy, you want it to be about a human being,” Pohlad said. “We all face mental health issues in one way or another…you don’t want it to be out here, you want it to be right here.”
Cusack added that his conversations with Wilson and wife impacted the actor’s own activism. “They said one of the reasons they wanted to do this is to take the stigma away from this issue and to let people come out and say, ‘I have this problem,'” he said.
Pohlad is also encouraged by the response to the film’s approach to mental health, particularly because it wasn’t something that he and the rest of the film’s talent wanted to play up for drama.
“We just kind of tried to trust the story, trust Brian and Melinda and the way they live their lives and tell that story,” Pohlad said. “Then you’re hoping along the way that somebody might pick up on that. Thankfully now, people have started to…When the movie first came out, it was like, ‘Oh, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and all that music that you love,’ and we do [that], except that it’s also about this other thing. Hopefully, that’s what’s getting traction now.”
Still, the team remains pragmatic about Wilson’s mental health and how they reflected it in their own movie, which ends on an upbeat note.
“It’s not like the movie is over at that point, or the story is over,” Pohlad said. “He’s still struggling.”
As Melinda, Banks is tasked with helping break free of his nefarious therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti ), and while she’s cognizant of the happy beat that the film concludes on, she is eager for people to recognize that mental health is a continuing battle.
She didn’t cure him at the end of movie, and I think that’s really important to remember,” Banks said. “He still lives with schizoaffective disorder, but he is properly diagnosed and medicated and cared for.”
And if there’s a greater message to the film, she added, it’s this: “How to be compassionate for people and know that they have so much worth.”