Of all the films that came to Toronto International Film Festival looking for distribution, Shira Piven’s dark comedy “Welcome to Me” stands one of the best chances of getting a deal, a release and critical and commercial attention.
Featuring Kristen Wiig in a sharp, strong and daring performance as Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who uses her lottery winnings to finance a cringeworthy TV show in which she talks about herself, the film takes an amusing but occasionally tough look at mental illness, self-absorption and the culture of unearned celebrity.
The audience at its Toronto world premiere laughed uproariously … and then they stopped, because “Welcome to Me” knows how close the border is between comedy and tragedy, and works both sides of that line.
With strong supporting turns from Linda Cardellini as Wiig’s long-suffering best friend, Tim Robbins as a counselor at the end of his rope and Joan Cusak as a seasoned TV producer with a seemingly endless array of amusing ways to indicate disbelief with just a look, the film depicts a serious condition in a way that unavoidably draws laughs (particularly in the accomplished hands of comic Wiig) without ever really mocking mental illness.
“We were aware that there were comedic scenes in this movie, and we wanted to be respectful,” said Wiig at the post-screening Q&A.
Added actress-turned-director Shira Piven, “to be respectful of the subject, we really wanted to approach Alice as a real person, and not think, How do we make people laugh?”
They do make people laugh – but the film also makes it clear that it’s dealing with serious issues, and it reaches a point where things are simply no laughing matter.
For many, that point may come fairly late in the film, when Wiig has a breakdown and walks naked through the casino of the hotel where Alice is living. But while the scene was greeted with shocked silence from an audience that had been vocally appreciative for most of the movie, it did provide one of the lighter moments in the point-screening Q&A.
“It’s really weird, because you’ve all seem what’s under my dress, said Wiig when asked about the moment afterwards. “I feel like we’re all bonded together. We’ve shared something.”
The film’s screenwriter, Eliot Laurence, was also in a sharing mood at the Q&A, where he said that the film was based on personal experience. “I had a rather dark period in my life,” he said. “A close friend of mine died, and I really went into myself.
“But then I laughed about it, and wrote it all down.”