In the United States, it’s estimated that between 20 to 25 percent of the country’s homeless are mentally ill, compared to 6 percent of the broader population. It’s unsurprising; while many in America find themselves homeless at one time or another, individuals with mental conditions are less likely to be able to hold down a steady job or engage in some of those necessary functions that allow people to live independently. In the US, people can fall through the cracks and out of the system.
In BENCH (2017), Charles J. Ouda attempts to humanize both homelessness and mental instability—in this case, in the form of a veteran’s PTSD. This film starts with Emma, a young job seeker in a new city that feels like she’s having a really bad day. She stabs herself with her mascara wand, spills coffee on herself, and fails about in her morning job interview. She finds herself in the park, complaining to her mother about her failures. While she’s there, however, she meets a George, a black man who may or may not be homeless. George gives her a pep talk and tells her to have more confidence. Even as he makes her feel better about herself, she gets a call from her prospective employer that turns her day around.
This seems like, at first, the classical “magical negro” trope, in which an older black man helps a younger white woman to be happy. However, the films take a more interesting turn when he needs help, and it turns out that she is incapable of helping him, in part because of real and assumed prejudices against mental illness.
BENCH explores the ways that the world is set up to benefit some and not others. Emma spills coffee on herself and acts like a spaz, but still gets the job, as the interviewers like her verve and “spirit.” When George acts abnormal, he (and the rest of the world) sees it as threatening and shameful.
Despite the film’s at times uneven technical elements, it does highlight the talents of Nathan Hinton, who conveys the horror, fear, and shame of PTSD without overplaying it. The final image, of George fearfully hugging himself on the sidewalk, far away from his beloved park, shows the director’s potential as a nuanced filmmaker, able to show complex problems that might not have individual answers.