Depictions of teen suicide aren’t unique to Hollywood. Shakespeare, for example, crafted an enduring scenario in Romeo and Juliet.
But Hollywood has portrayed teen suicide in a number of ways, from the serious to the silly. Possible effects of these portrayals don’t go unnoticed. A 1986 study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “some teenage suicides are imitative” after finding a significant increase in attempted and completed suicides following the broadcast of several films on suicide in the New York area.
While potential effects are studied and debated, it’s important to realize that film depictions of teen suicide can also spark awareness and conversation.
Five films from the 1980s offer such opportunities. These films differ in genre; some are dramas, others are comedies. And they differ in depiction; some hold teen suicide as integral to the plot, others merely touch on it. Each, however, left a mark on its Generation X constituency.“Ordinary People” (1980, Rated R, Drama)
This adaptation of the Judith Guest novel won the Oscar for best picture. It also garnered three other Oscars, including best director for Robert Redford.
Two parents and their teenage son—just “ordinary people”—struggle after the drowning death of the oldest child. Conrad, the surviving son, has already tried to kill himself when the film begins. The film chronicles the family’s fight to remain a family, focusing on Conrad.
Conrad deals with guilt, control, emotional distance from his mother, and the stigma attached to his previous suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization.
When a date asks Conrad why he tried to kill himself, he responds: “It’s like falling into a hole, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger, and you can’t get out. And then all of a sudden, it’s inside, and you’re the hole, and you’re trapped and it’s all over. And it’s not really scary, except it is when you think back on it, because you know what you were feeling is strange and new.”
Full of sobering and heartbreaking moments, “Ordinary People” is a no-frills journey through the problem of teen suicide and emotions surrounding it.
“The Breakfast Club” (1984, Rated R, Comedy/Drama)
This movie isn’t known for its Oscar pull, but for its maker—teen movie whiz John Hughes—and stars (“Brat Pack” members Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy).
The clever plot device puts five different high schoolers together in Saturday morning detention. One is a jock, one a stoner, one a beauty queen, one a psycho, one a brain.
Through a day spent in each other’s company—and examination of their high school caste system—they gain more appreciation for each other.
But along the way, secrets are revealed, one of which is the brain’s suicide attempt after he receives a failing grade.
“I can’t have an F,” he confesses. “I can’t have it. And I know my parents can’t have it.”
Since “The Breakfast Club” is both drama and comedy, the scene’s tension is broken when the brain reveals his suicide attempt involved not a gun with real bullets, but a flare gun.
Though discussion of suicide is limited to this one scene, the entire movie is relevant due to its focus on peer and familial pressures.
“Better Off Dead” (1985, Rated PG, Comedy)
This cult classic stars John Cusack as suburban teen Lane Myer. After his girlfriend dumps him for the campus jock, Lane embarks on a series of failed suicide attempts: hanging himself, jumping from a bridge, carbon monoxide poisoning, setting himself on fire.
The silliness with which these attempts are portrayed is the only thing serious about “Better Off Dead,” even the title of which encapsulates the thoughts of a suicidal mind.
Again, peer and familial pressures play a significant role in Lane’s crises.
“Heathers” (1988, Rated R, Dark Comedy)
“Heathers” is edgy (i.e. incredibly crude at many points). Tucked inside this rough exterior, however, is a frighteningly frank look at high school politics and popularity. So frank, in fact, a dark comedy is the only way to swallow it.
Stripped to its essentials, Christian Slater’s outcast character—J.D.—helps Winona Ryder’s character—Veronica—manipulate the school’s “in-crowd.” But the “manipulation” entails murder, set up to look like suicide.
“Heathers” deals quite playfully with religion. At the funeral for one of the victims, Father Ripper intones: “I blame not Heather but rather a society that tells its youth that the answers are on the MTV video games. We must pray the other teenagers of Sherwood, Ohio, know the name of that ‘righteous dude’ who can solve their problems…”
But it’s J.D.’s honesty that is so unsettling. He tells Veronica: “Okay, so maybe I am killing everyone in the school because nobody loves me. You have a purpose though! Remember? Let’s face it, the only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.”
“Dead Poets Society” (1989, Rated PG, Drama)
Screenwriter Tom Schulman won an Oscar for his script about a group of prep-school boys inspired by their English teacher, John Keating (beautifully played by Robin Williams).
“Seize the day,” Keating tells his students. And they do, battling their personal demons to live life to its fullest.
But one student—Neil Perry—struggles with his father’s demands on vocation. Neil wants to act, but his father considers it “absurd acting business” and won’t stand for it: “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neil. And you will not let me down.”
“He’s planning the rest of my life for me,” Neil confides to Keating. And in total despair, Neil concludes that he—like Conrad, like the brain, like Lane, and like J.D.—would be better off dead.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.