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CINEMA

GROUP THERAPY (2024)

MPAA: NR.
Release Date: ../../.. [Festival Run]
Genre: Comedy.

Studio: Hartbeat Productions. 

[Seen for Tribeca 2024]

"A witty exploration of mental health challenges through relatable conversations, striking a balance between depth and levity." 

OUR MOVIE REVIEW:

What do you call 6 comedians who enter a room and talk about their mental health? Group Therapy. That’s no joke. That’s the respective premise and name of a new documentary shedding light on the correlation between a comedian’s pain and their punchlines. 

The film begins with the ensemble arriving at a remote venue. One by one, comedians Mike Birbiglia, Nicole Byer, Gary Gulman, London Hughes, Tig Notaro and Atsuko Okatsuka show up and cynically greet each other. As they get prepped by a hair and makeup team - and as an audience arrives - you would think that they are there to entertain. They are not.  After the appearance of one more guest, the amicable Neil Patrick Harris, the group files into a room. It’s then that Harris asks them a simple question: “Who here has ever struggled with mental health?” What follows is a series of personal stories and confessions - some known, some new - that spark a deeper conversation about comedy’s catharsis.

It’s never explained outright why these 6 comedians are chosen for this exercise, or even why Harris is the moderator. He even makes it a point to ask the question himself. But as the film peers back at each one’s mental health journey, you start to see how it has been reflected in their work and, in some cases, even become a part of their brand. For example, Birbiglia recalls his sleep disorder. And Nicole Byer breaks down how she spent most of her life being put in different boxes because of her skin color and her weight. Both had gone on so long without knowing how to express their frustration with those insecurities, but ironically it wasn't until they embraced them that they were able to find their voices. Birbiglia would eventually chronicle his experience in his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. Byer would write a (now viral) UCB sketch.

The film doesn’t stop at showing us how the comedians owned their sadness onstage. It becomes a platform for them to bravely share how they dealt with it - and still deal with it - offstage. As comedian London Hughes reveals, her coping ranges from tearing herself down in front of an audience to prevent the audience from doing it to her, to watching Britney Spears dancing with knives on Instagram in her downtime. Conversely, in one of the film’s rawest moments, Gary Gulman reveals that his clinically diagnosed depression was so severe that he underwent electroconvulsive therapy, which even he admits sounded much less intimidating before it was renamed from electroshock therapy. Gulman’s story shatters a major stigma about modern mental health treatment. And he makes it a point to say that out of everything else he tried, the therapy helped him the most. It’s consistently candid moments like these that highlight each comedian’s humanity. You realize that the courage to perform in front of a crowd pales in comparison to the courage to be honest about your own pain.

In the film, there’s a moment where Tig Notaro talks about the time in her life where she had just lost her mother and was diagnosed with cancer. She notably says that she wasn’t depressed, but rather experienced “a deep sadness.” That subtle distinction is a true a-ha moment in the film because it further illustrates how complex the mental health spectrum is. You don’t have to be depressed to be sad. And as Atsuko Okatsuka’s own story illustrates, you don’t always have to know how you feel either. Her perspective is particularly interesting because it’s revealed that she’s the only one in the group that does not receive consistent therapy. It’s not so much that she’s scared of it, but that she believes she’s doing fine managing it herself. While that could be true, seeing her warm up to the idea as the self-contained session continues only further proves the film’s point that sharing feelings is the ultimate form of treatment.

The only piece of the film that feels out-of-place is ironically the built-in audience. Like Neil Patrick Harris, it’s never explained why it’s there. Unlike Harris however, no one in it ever offers any meaningful input. While you do eventually forget it’s there, you can’t help but wonder whether it only encouraged the subjects to be as brave as they are, or hindered them from getting any deeper.

Nevertheless, Group Therapy is so good and so feel-good that its overall message cannot be drowned out. Even though it runs a little longer than a traditional therapy session, it offers just as much optimism and reassurance. Thanks to its perfect blend of humor and humanity, its greatest achievement is the way it invites you to re-examine how you process pain in your own life because you don’t have to do it alone.

OUR VERDICT:

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