13 Reasons Why Review: Why Its Depiction of Suicide Does More Harm Than Good

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SPOILERS AHEAD

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series adapted from a novel of the same title by Jay Asher that depicts the life of a seventeen-year-old high school student named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has committed suicide. She left thirteen tapes, each addressed to a different one of her peers explaining their actions that contributed to her wanting to take her own life. Although the show has good intentions and the premise is a worthy one, there are some issues I had with it: some from a filmmaking point of view and others with its portrayal of suicide and mental illness.

From a filmmaking point of view, the show is brim full of cheesy high-school movie clichés that are unrealistic and unnecessary, especially in a show dealing with such a serious, real life issue. Some of the characters’ words and actions are so ridiculous and unrealistic they border on comical, like when Jessica (Alisha Boe) slaps Hannah in the middle of a café full of people and not a single person around them so much as bats an eyelid. The dialogue is often contrived and unnatural, for example when Alex (Miles Heizer), Jessica, and Hannah all hold hands and proclaim “FML for ever”. Although admittedly, the teeth-clenching cringe decreases after around episode seven, the first half of the series is difficult to watch at times. Of course, the second half is difficult to watch for very different reasons (which I’ll explain later). The show also has some seemingly pointless subplots which lead to nothing. For example, the subplot in which we see Tyler (Devin Druid) purchase a gun, and later his hidden collection of weapons, leads to apparently nothing. Although there’s always the possibility this will be explained in a second series, it adds nothing to the narrative of the first, apart from maybe giving fans an opportunity to theorise.

The way the show portrays suicide is misleading. While some of the things that happen to Hannah, like being raped and stalked, would understandably drive somebody who was already struggling to committing suicide, mental illness isn’t always an accumulative process. Depression can affect absolutely anyone, regardless of their personal circumstances. However, not once in the entire series does anyone utter the words “depression” or “mental illness” or any terminology of that sort. The overarching message of the series seems to be: “be nice to people or they might commit suicide”. Kindness is of course a noble message to endorse, but to suggest it could prevent someone from taking their own life is unhelpful and frankly untrue. It oversimplifies suicide by unfairly blaming Hannah’s peers (some of whom seem fairly innocent) for her choice to take her own life, thus ignoring the medical reality of mental illness. It’s often unrealistic in its depiction of depression and how it’s percieved, e.g. when Hannah tells her school councillor that she’s been sexually assaulted and that she feels she can no longer cope with life; he basically hands her a box of tissues and tells her to get over it. He does not even acknowledge depression as an illness or suggest the possibility of therapy or medication, which is what any professional would do.

 

Furthermore, the overly graphic depictions of sexual assault and suicide do more harm than good. Although I can understand the intention of shocking the viewer by revealing the true horror of suicide, studies have shown that graphic depictions of suicide have the exact opposite effect and that they can cause individuals who are already feeling suicidal to tip over the edge. It certainly doesn’t glamorise or romanticise suicide or rape in any way, but the scenes in which they occur are far too long and far too explicit. The particularly painful way in which Hannah chooses to take her own life (slitting her wrists) suggests an underlying mental health problem which would not have been cured by kindness. Mental illness is exactly that: an illness. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain which can be treated, and it may have existed in Hannah’s mind regardless of the way she was treated. The show almost suggests that Hannah committed suicide as an act of revenge, wanting to make those who hurt her suffer by blaming them for her death. This is not only a cruel act of narcissism which even leads to one individual on the tapes committing suicide as well, but it is also a negative and inaccurate representation of people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, who already feel misunderstood and stigmatised.

 

Although 13 Reasons Why has succeeded in opening a dialogue about important issues such as sexual assault and suicide, the inaccuracy in the depictions will lead to more stigma and misunderstanding; while the explicit nature of certain scenes are too difficult to watch and may cause people who are already struggling to relapse.

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T2 Trainspotting: A Sequel Done Right

*Spoiler free for T2 Trainspotting, but if you haven’t seen the original (you seriously need to watch it), this may contain spoilers for that.

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When this long-awaited sequel was first announced, I, like many people, was filled with scepticism. Not least of all because sequels, especially ones done years after the original film, are often failures. The mistake most sequels make is trying to recreate the original film, however T2 Trainspotting doesn’t do this. Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting is more than just a good film. It’s an iconic, era-defining cult classic that had a profound influence on British society. It was arguably a catalyst to the so-called “War On Drugs”, to the extent that the heroin-users of the late 1980s and 1990s are often referred to as “The Trainspotting Generation”. Danny Boyle himself even called it “Scotland’s Star Wars”. So, you could say it was a bit of a tough act to follow. Boyle and his crew knew that this would be impossible to recreate, especially twenty years later. What T2 Trainspotting does instead of just rerunning its predecessor is it gives a very honest, raw depiction of the aftermath of reckless youth.

 

Youth was an issue that the sequel was always going to face. Part of the appeal of Trainspotting is that it captures a stage in one’s life when time means nothing and you think you’re invincible. The characters of Trainspotting are free to lie around shooting heroin all day without thinking or caring about the consequences. It’s impossible to recreate that youthful apathy twenty years later, and this film doesn’t try to. If anything, it uses the twenty-year gap between the films to its advantage. Unlike the original, it is very aware of time. It’s full of nostalgia, and it’s used to create a subtle but poignant statement about ageing and manhood. It reveals the consequences that those fresh-faced young men didn’t think of twenty years ago, when they were flying on heroin. It manages to stay true to its predecessor and its loveable antiheros without trying to recreate it. All the characters are exactly where you’d expect them to be: Renton (Ewan McGregor) has been running away from his past for the last twenty years; Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is carrying out dodgy scams and snorting coke whenever he can; Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison, and Spud (Ewen Bremner), despite getting his act together for a bit, is back on heroin. Its narrative is unlike most contemporary films: there is no clear motive or mission, no problem to solve, no happily-ever-after. It’s basically just a bunch of ex-heroin addicts having a reunion, and trying to find meaning in their miserable lives. It’s cynical without being depressing. It captures the disappointment of adulthood and modern life, but it maintains the witty, dark humour that made the original so entertaining.

 

The film’s use of editing is creative and stunning to watch, and is used to create a strong self-awareness. There are constant references to the original film, and there are several scenes where footage from the original film overlaps with the sequel. It recreates several shots from the original film, and it wouldn’t be Trainspotting without the unforgettable “Choose Life” monologue, but adapted for the modern world and beautifully delivered by Ewan McGregor.  There are even flashbacks to when the characters were younger than they were in the original film, e.g. it shows Renton and Sick Boy buying their first heroin. This provides even more insight into the lives of the characters, and implicitly forces us to draw comparisons of youth and adulthood that we may not have otherwise. The cinematography is also used to draw attention to the differences between the two films, and the two eras. The cinematography in the original is often very surreal; for example, the chilling scene in which Renton overdoses and sinks into the floor, or the revolting ‘Worst Toilet In Scotland’ scene (here’s a fun piece of trivia: the “shit” used in that scene was actually chocolate mousse and it smelled delicious). However, the cinematography in the sequel, although surreal at times, uses this method a lot less, reflecting the reality of life when you’re not high on heroin 24/7.

 

Of course, I couldn’t talk about anything Trainspotting related without discussing the soundtrack. T2 Trainspotting also has a brilliant soundtrack, but it was never going to be as iconic as the original soundtrack, with songs such as ‘Lust for Life’ by Iggy Pop and ‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld which can’t be listened to without being associated with Trainspotting. These songs are featured in the sequel, adding to the nostalgic effect of the film, as well as a few modern additions such as Wolf Alice and Fat White Family. The soundtrack is often emotive and succeeds in furthering the action of the film.

 

It’s difficult to say whether the sequel is better, worse, or as good as the original film, as it’s impossible to view it in isolation since it’s so self-aware and constantly forcing its audience to draw comparisons with the original. It certainly won’t have the same cultural legacy as Trainspotting, but it does it more than justice and is just as harrowing and entertaining, so I would highly recommend giving it a watch.

Here’s the T2 Trainspotting Trailer, which you should definitely watch if you haven’t already seen it.

And here’s the soundtrack.