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Gabriel: Powerful Portrayal of Mental Illness on the Screen

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The Tribeca Film Festival boasts amazing films, written and directed by veteran filmmakers and breakout stars. It would be hard to choose one film to see or endorse, but as a mental health professional, one stands out for me. Gabriel, by first time feature director and writer Lou Howe, is a harrowing and heart-wrenching look at mental illness that lingers long after the credits roll.

Gabriel stars Rory Culkin, who plays the complicated title character freshly home from an inpatient stay at a mental health facility. The film is an intimate and uncomfortable journey with Gabriel as he searches to find the person he believes is his true love and the answer to his constant pain.

I have seen many films about mental illness and, as a psychologist, perhaps I am too quick to judge them. I scrutinize them for accuracy and wince at portrayals of psychiatric disturbance that are over-simplified, with characters that seem one-dimensional. Gabriel is a superb film, with Culkin as a tormented, multi-layered presence. From the beginning, it's not clear what his internal struggles are, and as the story unfolds, so do his symptoms. We see him start to fall apart half way into the film, sitting in a diner he went to often as a child, the fan whirring on the ceiling too intrusive for him to handle.

Howe never diagnosis Gabriel's psychiatric disorder, though it's clear that he is psychotic and likely schizophrenic. The film does a masterful job of allowing the audience to witness this young man's unraveling and the pain his family experiences when they so desperately want to help him. I've met many parents like them -- loving and supportive and worried about a very fragile youth.

Gabriel is a powerful look at a young man who could be anyone's son and who desperately wants to be able to function without medication and without continued treatment. It reminds us how real mental illness is and how devastating its impact can be. It also reminds us how important family is. Even though Gabriel rejects his family for much of the film, it's clear that he loves them, and we hope he finds a way back to them.

Gabriel will also be screened at the Nantucket Film Festival in June. Check it out!

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