About 4 in 10 American adults reported symptoms of anxiety, or depression, in January of 2021. By comparison, only one in ten adults reported such symptoms before the coronavirus era, from January to June 2019.
As more working Americans are affected by their mental health, they are protected by robust legislation that criminalizes employment discrimination. The legal protection of working professionals with mental health conditions stands in stark contrast to the negative portrayals that mentally ill characters have received in film. Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs come to mind.
Hollywood has turned over a new leaf with Fear of Rain, the psychological thriller with deep ties to the Tampa Bay area, that’s in theaters at the time of publication. It is written and directed by Bradenton native, and Terra Ceia resident, Castille Landon. St. Petersburg’s own Eugenie Bondurant stars in a leading role and Sarasota resident Lori Abrams served as an executive producer.
The Steinbrenner family partly financed the project. So did NFL player Anthony Chickillo and alternative rock musician Don Miggs, husband to Lisa DeBartolo of the DeBartolo family.
The movie was shot across the bay area with scenes at Tampa General Hospital, Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Katherine Heigl and Harry Connick, Jr. bring star-power to this Lionsgate production.
Madison Iseman plays the titular Rain, a high school girl suffering from schizophrenia. Rain’s condition was a deliberate choice on Landon’s part because “it works best with film and is the most stigmatized and most misunderstood” condition, she says. While writing the script, Landon drew inspiration from several first-hand accounts, from more casual sources like Reddit boards and YouTube videos of people documenting their own experiences to legal scholar Elyn Saks’ memoir on schizophrenia, The Center Cannot Hold. The latter of which also became a resource Landon and Iseman referred back to frequently during filming.
Rain suspects that her next-door neighbor (and English teacher) may be holding a young girl hostage. With her parents (Connick and Heigl) watching, an amiable classmate (played by Israel Broussard) helps her distinguish reality from hallucination.
Spoiler alert: Unlike in other movies, the mentally ill character isn’t the villainess here. Rather, she’s the sympathetic protagonist in what’s been called a groundbreaking “mental illness thriller.”
“All I can hope for is that if it does become kind of a genre unto itself, that it is done in such a way that upends the trope [of the violent, mentally ill antagonist],” Landon says. “If we’re not placing the person who has a mental illness as the villain, I think it would be really great if there were more movies that tackled the stigma of it all.”
Bondurant notes how her character, Mrs. McConnell, preys on the acute sensitivity that Rain’s condition causes.
“The fact that there are people who see this and can play upon that fear, or that insecurity, or that terror, it’s terrifying to me,” says Bondurant. “It’s about someone taking advantage of someone else.”
Despite her character’s treachery, she says she “had a blast experimenting with who she was and why she did what she did. [I also enjoyed] trying to figure that out, and how to use my imagination, and base it in truth to make those themes that I was in more present, more real and more connected.”
Mrs. McConnell’s treatment of Rain can serve as a cautionary tale against the stigmatization, otherization or dehumanization of the millions of Americans living with a mental health condition.
“The mental illness is a discussion point, but I think the human element of it is the most important because ultimately, whatever these characters are going through, the mental illness doesn’t define them,” Landon says. “[Rain] is labeled by society as schizophrenic. And people with schizophrenia want to be referred to as a person with schizophrenia as opposed to labeling someone who’s schizophrenic. And so, there’s the underlying commentary there … discussing how that diagnosis now sort of comes to identify you. And she’s pushing back against that, she’s saying, ‘I’m not that and listen to me, don’t just dismiss me.’”
Landon thinks the pernicious ways in which society sometimes mistreats mentally ill people can mirror the mistreatment of other easily-labeled people.
“We, as a society, often are guilty of dismissing people because they see things in a way that we either disagree with, on one side of the spectrum, or that we label as crazy, on the other, more extreme side,” she says. “Yes, [Rain] does have hallucinations but she also is a real person who has eyes, and knows when she has a gut reaction, and she knows what she’s seeing in this case. But because of that societal treatment of her, she also starts to doubt her own self.”
People with a mental health condition can live without self-doubt while still seeking help.
“If someone has mental health issues, go see a professional,” Bondurant says. “They are trained to help you … I strongly encourage the seeking of help. Get help. Don’t live in fear. Ask and talk about it.”