‘Collateral Beauty’: Humanizing Grief & Recovery

January 27, 2017
Written by Lyndsey Ellis
Like Will Smith and his son, from the movie, I ain't talking about the rich ones.

The Film

In the aftermath of social tensions and collective mourning that stemmed from last week’s U.S. Inaugural event, I think it’s time to deepen the conversation on grief. Films, I believe, provide a safe space to engage on such a touchy subject.

I recently saw ‘Collateral Beauty’, a drama starring Will Smith as an advertising executive who withdraws from everyday life after the death of his 6-year-old daughter. Out of frustration and anger, he starts writing letters to the concepts of Love, Time and Death. His co-workers, who are also his close friends, hire a detective to follow him and conspire to help Smith recover by hiring struggling actors to treat Love, Time and Death to confront him as actual characters answering his angry messages in person.

Overall, the film received unfavorable reviews. Many critics dismissed it as clichéd, superficial, and pseudo-enlightening. One reviewer accused the movie of turning grief into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ process, mostly because of the time limitations and ‘insensitive’ plot twists. At best, the film was regarded as significant for addressing a topic that’s not the easiest dinner table chat.

That’s not to say I don’t agree with some of the disapproval ratings, but in my opinion, the overall harshness of movie critics on the film undermines this vital role of the grieving process. It’s not easy to grapple with feelings of helplessness, confusion, and rage when we deal with personal tragedies, like losing a loved one.

What It Means for Mental Health & Recovery

Humanizing difficult concepts sometimes helps put us on the mend. Otherwise, our most intense feelings risk getting lost in translation and can lead to crippling experiences if we’re not able to process emotionally charged situations.

This is not a rare tactic. ‘Collateral Beauty’ just makes the idea of personifying important (and in this case, universal) elements more blatant, in terms of cinematic appeal. But, this has been at the core of many initiatives throughout time, particularly—and now, more frequently—where the focus is on normalizing the conversation on mental health and eliminating stigma.

Consider visual artists’ take on what depression looks like for them.  Or, victims’ portraits that help people heal from the trauma following the Charleston church shooting.  Or, dancers’ psychological warfare that’s often overlooked by society, like in the intricate world of ballet. Historically, many books have also given a face and voice to mental health challenges.

One can only hope these kinds of examples to vocalize mental health awareness continue to be supported. Like ‘Collateral Beauty’, these truthful undertakings confirm that we’re all connected by our deepest (and sometimes, darkest) personal experiences.