Oct. 8 2010 12:00 AM

Well-acted comedy-drama looks at life in a mental hospital

Forget those happy Prom Night memories and the fun of graduation: On a day-to-day basis, being a teenager is often tough, especially as you approach the brink of adulthood and have to think about where you're going to college, how you're going to score on the all-important admissions tests, what you want to study and what you're going to do with the rest of your life. In the case of Craig Gilner (the low-key but engaging Keir Gilchrist), the protagonist of "It's Kind of a Funny Story," the constant drive to succeed drives him into a mental hospital. But Craig isn't supremely sullen or self-destructive like the teenage patients in "Girl, Interrupted" or "Prozac Nation": He's merely self-aware enough to know he's losing his grip.
In fact, "Funny Story" is one of the few films brave enough to address the heartbreak of stress vomiting. It's one of Craig's problems that he hopes can be cleared up in a few therapy sessions; in the fast-paced world of today's urban teen, who has time for in-depth analysis?
Writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Half Nelson"), adapting a book by Ned Vizzini, generally concentrate on the lighter side of the psychiatric universe. "I wanna kill myself," Craig melodramatically announces to a hospital receptionist. "Fill this out," she numbly responds, pushing a clipboard toward him.
Yet even as the story introduces Craig to some peculiar personalities, including a permanently exhausted roommate (Bernard White) and the charming Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, playing it semi-straight and doing a commendable job), who has a penchant for dressing up in doctor's garb and wandering outside the ward, "Funny Story" is careful not to ridicule or wave away the anguish and anger that often accompanies mental turmoil. One of the few people close to Craig's age is Noelle (Emma Roberts), a lovely young woman with an unexplained, lengthy scratch across her left cheek. Craig checked himself into the hospital before anything went seriously wrong; that may not have been the case with Noelle. In a refreshing twist, the exact nature of Noelle's troubles is not spelled out in a tear-soaked confessional monologue; instead, Roberts fashions a convincing picture of a girl clinging to a kind of pre-fab hipness -- she wears Stooges t-shirts and talks about Vampire Weekend concerts -- to cover up her insecurities.
Bobby is often easy-going and amiable, but there's a sense he also has known some serious suffering. However, "Funny Story" doesn't turn into a "who's really crazy here?" contest. Fleck and Boden acknowledge that while some of the patients may be more disturbed than others, everyone -- including Craig, who initially acts as if his five-day stay in the hospital is going to be a vacation -- needs help.
The movie has its own gentle humor and a few flights of fantasy, including the transformation of Craig's sketches into animated sequences, and a startling moment in which a musical therapy session suddenly explodes into a glitter-rock tribute to the Queen/David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." But the filmmakers take "Funny Story" seriously, and so do the actors (including first-class supporting turns by Jeremy Davies as the ward's ersatz social director and Viola Davis as a savvy psychiatrist), each of whom approaches his or her part honestly instead of looking for easy laughs.