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Love and Mercy

Gareth Higgins

Love and Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohlad

Cert PG, 121 mins

The Beach Boys' music, for over half a century, has answered the question 'How ya doing?'. Or at least answers it the way we want to feel, with the uplifting tones of Surfin' USA, or Good Vibrations doing what uplifting tones are supposed to do. Love and Mercy, a film about the struggle of the band's anchor Brian Wilson to integrate serious mental illness with magnificent creative impulses, while being held a virtual prisoner by an unconventional therapist, goes behind the angelic harmonies and sunshine-evoking tunes to explore the pain and struggle - the love and mercy - that made them possible. The cinematic representation of mental illness has something of a split personality. It is either played for spectacle, or sentiment, or - worst of all - an opportunity to pretend a quick cathartic and totally unrealistic healing. (For a portrayal of a profoundly wounded soul that lacks empathy or compassion for someone abused and traumatized by her mother, but which pays more attention to making her life a balletic melodrama, see Black Swan; to see schizophrenia cured in two hours or less, see A Beautiful Mind.) Their more noble cousin Cuckoo's Nest is a rare exception in which psychological complexity is treated with tenderness and intelligence. The best movies about mental illness try to tell the truth about the struggle, showing how healing is both possible and an ongoing journey, and allow the protagonist to have gifts as well as needs. Love and Mercy lets Wilson's beautiful mind speak for itself. In Paul Dano and John Cusack's extraordinary dual performances, the voices in his head become comprehensible as the residue of abusive parenting at the hands of a father-manager whose physical blows married emotional cruelty (including callously selling his son's music publishing rights), but also gave him a reason to want to escape. The irony - and perhaps the redemption - is that Brian Wilson's suffering has helped create some of the most life-affirming music, and a million smiles, even when he himself may have been crying. Music biopics don't fare much better than mental illness movies - the underdog rises from obscurity, encounters relational obstacles, bumps up against the evils of the industry machine, and then finally triumphs at a stadium gig or takes back independence by refusing one. (The more honourable efforts include Walk the Line, Ray, and the little-seen Paul Simon vehicle One Trick Pony, in which the assertion of independence equates to literally unspooling (and erasing) some master tapes in the street.) Love and Mercy is as good on the creative process as on psychological sensitivity. The studio scenes brilliantly unfold the painstaking crazy-genius of making a piano into a work horse (and invoking the possibility of bringing a real horse into the mix); the arguments, the conversations about what the artist is trying to do, even though he isn't sure himself. These two kinds of movie combine to produce something very special - a hybrid genre: the mental illness music biopic. Like Wilson's music, it's painful and joyous to experience his story. Cusack has never been better; Dane continues to reveal himself as one of the most uncommonly sensitive younger actors working today, and Elizabeth Banks (as the woman whose intervention seems to have saved Wilson's life) reminds us why she needs to get off the Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect treadmill and do more serious work. And there's marvellous work from Paul Gomati too, as the therapist who nearly stole Wilson from himself. As a work of trying to understanding and empathize with the struggle to become better - at art, and at life - Love and Mercy is one of the best films of the year