Living with a chronic illness comes with some pretty unique experiences. And whether those are bad pain days or increased strain on relationships, it’s easy to feel like nobody understands what you’re going through. That’s what makes movies with accurate chronic illness depictions so gratifying.
We all want to feel seen and understood, and that’s why I’m sharing ten movies with good representations of chronic illness. If you’re feeling lonely or misunderstood, check out these movies that really go the extra mile in terms of chronic illness representation.
So grab your popcorn and lay back in your chair, because we’re going to the movies.
1. Steel Magnolias
If you love the classics like I do, you have to check out the 1989 comedy-drama Steel Magnolias. Come for the heartfelt look at how type 1 diabetes impacts the lives of a group of women in the South, stay for the hilarious character moments and compelling plot.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think, “Wow, Dolly Parton’s hair really is that big, huh?” If you want a look at the real choices that people with chronic illness have and you’re ready for an emotional rollercoaster, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.
2. The Theory of Everything
You don’t have to have shelves full of Stephen Hawking’s work to love The Theory of Everything. But if you want to see how one of the greatest minds of the past century dealt with his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis, it’s absolutely worth a watch.
Not to get up on my nerd soapbox, but Hawking (for all of his flaws) went from a graduate student who doctors determined would only live for another two years to a world-renowned physicist who revolutionized the way that we see our universe. The Theory of Everything honors that legacy without shying away from Hawking’s failings or the realities of life with a chronic illness, and that’s what makes this movie so special.
3. The Upside
While a movie about being a billionaire who can afford a full-time caretaker isn’t exactly relatable content, The Upside does give an honest look at the ups and downs of life with chronic illness. Some days are good, some days are bad, and most days have parts of both. That is the message of The Upside, and it shares that message in such a fun, honest way that you really can’t help but love it.
I won’t lie, this movie does get a little cliche at times. But if you can forgive that and enjoy the wonderful chemistry between Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, I think you’ll find a story about chronic illness that has more heart than you might expect.
If you’re looking for something without big-name actors and directors, you’ll love Unrest, the story of Jennifer Brea, a Harvard PhD student who suffers a fever at 28 and becomes bedridden. The documentary begins remarkably near the outset of her chronic illness, and Brea shows us the process of receiving a diagnosis and finding a new community of millions who are also confined to their bedrooms due to chronic fatigue syndrome.
This documentary highlights the importance of community for people with chronic illness and the value of support. Nobody has to experience chronic pain alone, and Unrest reminds us that we have more people who care about us than we might realize.
5. The Fault in Our Stars
If you somehow missed this movie when it came out in 2014, now is a great time to circle back and catch up. The Fault in Our Stars is a hilarious and painfully realistic depiction of young romance coupled with cancer. Acerbic wit and similar diagnoses bind our characters together, which makes for plenty of witty one-liners and tearjerker moments.
I would classify this depiction of chronic illness as genuine, if not altogether realistic. No, your experience with chronic illness probably won’t involve trips overseas with overly witty teenagers. But if you can enjoy those moments for what they are and look for the underlying message, I think The Fault in Our Stars could be a great way to spend two hours and 13 minutes.
6. Gaga: Five Foot Two
If you’re a Lady Gaga fan and someone with chronic illness, this documentary is going to check a lot of boxes for you. This movie looks at Gaga’s life while working on a new album, stress before performing at the Super Bowl, and how fibromyalgia plays into everything.
To me, this documentary is a great reminder of the strength and perseverance that living with chronic illness demands. There are days when it’s easy to get down on yourself and lament about what you can’t do, which is why I think it’s so important to have reminders like this saying that just getting through the day with a chronic illness is a feat in itself.
7. Love & Other Drugs
If you’re a fan of the Nicholas Sparks genre of books/movies, Love & Other Drugs is right up your alley. Focusing on the relationship between a pharmaceutical sales rep and a woman living with Parkinson’s, this movie has all the hallmarks of a traditional rom-com while adding in the lived reality that comes with a chronic illness.
The great thing about this movie is that it shows the relationship hurdles that chronic illness creates, as well as the struggle of living with flare ups without proper medication. For people looking for a story about the ups and downs of life with chronic pain, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.
Where Cake really stands out is in its depiction of chronic pain. It touches on the frustration of having pain that never (or only intermittently) goes away, and it takes a fair look at how developing chronic pain can change someone who doesn’t know how to handle the new problems that it creates.
Cake shares a compelling narrative about chronic pain, grief, and struggles with pain management. Our narrative follows a mother who is left with chronic pain after the accident that killed her son, and she faces her new pain, opioid addiction, and new strain on her relationships. The story feels compelling without becoming trite, and Jennifer Aniston, especially, brings her character to life in a way that just about anyone can enjoy.
9. Of Unknown Etiology
As many people with invisible illnesses know, the process of receiving a diagnosis is often harrowing. In Of Unknown Etiology, John Fowler, a graduate film student, documents his struggle to find answers about his condition while grappling with a body that seems to be fighting against him.
This movie highlights how the American health care system can fail people with chronic pain and the lengths they have to go to for answers. Fowler shows a deeply personal process of suffering and adapting to a new normal while also reminding us that, even in the worst times, our support systems can make all the difference.
10. Pain Warriors
The opioid epidemic gets a lot of press (and for good reason), but the headlines often leave out the people who need opioid pain medication and can’t get it due to increasing restrictions. Pain Warriors is a documentary that steps in and sheds light on people struggling to find ways to live with their pain.
As a trigger warning, you should know that two of the Pain Warriors commit suicide during the documentary when they lose hope of ever managing their pain. But Pain Warriors also shares the stories of people who struggle, who suffer, and who find the strength to keep fighting for themselves and their communities. I don’t recommend this to anyone in an unstable mental state, but if you want an honest look at life with chronic pain and the struggles that entails, you won’t find a better film.
What are your favorite movies about people with chronic illnesses?
Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know!
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