There's nothing funny about teenage stress, depression and suicidal thoughts. Grinding hard work, intense competition among high-performing students, the pressures of applying to prestigious schools -- all while negotiating unsure turf with peers and parents -- can be overwhelming.
In "It's Kind of a Funny Story," the writing-directing team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Half Nelson") addresses these serious issues in an approachable, viewer-friendly way. It's so good in so many of its parts that there's a temptation to forgive the comedy-drama when it veers in the wrong direction, a path initially taken in Ned Vizzini's young-adult novel of the same title.
Keir Gilchrist (Showtime's "United States of Tara") is one of the best things about the movie. From the moment his voice-over narration introduces 16-year-old Craig teetering on a New York bridge, wanting to kill himself after feeling depressed for a year, the likable actor makes you care about what happens to him.
Gilchrist brings honesty and realism to the role of Craig, playing a character who can't quite put his finger on why his ongoing issues have suddenly triggered such an intense desire to commit suicide. His well-meaning dad (Jim Gaffigan) always asks the wrong questions; he's obsessed with the girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) of his best friend (Thomas Mann); and, despite a looming deadline, he hasn't even started filling out the application for summer session at Manhattan's exclusive Executive Pre-Professional High School.
But Craig knows one thing: He needs help. Now.
The kind-of-a-funny story starts when the sensitive teen admits himself into a psychiatric hospital. Because the youth ward is undergoing renovation, Craig and other patients his age are placed with the adults -- lovable eccentrics more in the mold of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" than "Girl, Interrupted." The crazy thing is that Craig doesn't feel crazy at all among these loony characters. He wants to go home.
A five-day-stay requirement gives the narrative enough time to develop a dual track of insights about growing up and getting medical treatment. Craig makes friends with the affable Bobby (Zach Galifianakis of "Dinner for Schmucks") and develops a crush on Noelle (Emma Roberts of "Nancy Drew") -- both of whom bring humor and humanity to the screen.
But the film offers simplistic solutions in suggesting that problems can be cured in less than a week, and that a well-intentioned teenage boy with some cash, courtesy of his parents, can accomplish what medical professionals (including Viola Davis) cannot.
Attempts at light-hearted stylization are a mixed bag, too. The directors' effective use of Guy Ritchie-like freeze frames, sometimes followed by quick montages of images connected by voice-over, amusingly get us into Craig's head. His worries about not getting into the esteemed summer-school program result in a cause-and-effect scenario that has him winding up in the hospital forever. Unfortunately, one segment that should be a showstopper simply stops the show: Craig takes his turn singing during group therapy in a scene more visually flat than "Glee"-ful.
Still, the movie's message of hope -- that you're not alone, can talk about your problems and get support and help -- is certainly worth the price of admission for viewers of all ages.