In one testimonial on the film’s fan site, a girl posts a picture of her forearm where she has scrawled a tribute to the lead character in ballpoint. She shares with the camera both her love for the film and a row of razor-thin scars, relics of self-harm.
In another, a boy named AJ writes, “This movie saved my life.”
The testimonials are not for 13 Reasons Why, the controversial Netflix series based on a young adult novel in which a teen kills herself and takes revenge by leaving behind a set of mixtapes with her grievances. They’re for an entirely different project, called My Suicide, made in 2009 and released onto the streaming service roughly a year ago.
Like 13 Reasons, My Suicide captures the turmoil surrounding unimaginable loss at an American high school. Unlike 13 Reasons, My Suicide was actually created as a public service, specifically to prevent the worst from happening.
The movie is intimate, raw and at times graphic and unsettling (it is not suitable for young children). It’s aesthetic stands in blunt contrast to 13 Reasons, which parents and mental health advocates complain portrays a romanticized, dangerously incomplete portrayal of taking your own life that places blame on the survivors.
It is the authentic voice of My Suicide that makes this film important viewing for anyone seeking insight into what drives modern teenagers to the brink.
A dark comedy about the journey from narcissism to connection, My Suicide ports you directly into the psyche of its main character, Archie Williams. The editing is quick-cut and animation-riddled, the effect is almost hallucinogenic. The view from his teenage-boy mind is hormonal, caustic, sometimes gory, often vulnerable and achingly awkward.
Those rough edges may not be for everyone. While the show won 26 awards around the world, a cranky review by The Hollywood Reporter described it as being both derived from the internet and an “extended pastiche of YouTube postings,” which is precisely why My Suicide went viral among teens.
The film’s production house, Regenerate Films, is a nonprofit formed with a mission to make movies that “provide a message of change and hope.” The director, David Lee Miller, told Quartz that the filmmakers “set out to make a movie to save one life” and over time Miller said, they heard from thousands of teenagers who credited it for pulling them back from the edge.
“I Am an Archie” (the homage scrawled to the main character on the fangirl’s arm) became a tag of solidarity adopted by the community.
Miller said they wanted capture how hard it is to be a kid today; overloaded and overconnected and at the same time disconnected. This particular state of modern culture is among the reasons why Netflix’s choice to release a multi-part series on teen suicide is horrendously timed.
When Netflix releases new entertainment, the company is looking to grow membership, garner accolades and increase profit margins (pdf.) While subscribers love Netflix for the content–people watch 25 million hours of Netflix every day–the company loves subscribers for the monthly fees. Netflix has more than 100 million viewers in over 190 million territories. 13 Reasons was released in all of them. The company launched streaming services in the US in 2007 and since then has grown its reach.
Additionally, Netflix’s bingeable series are catnip for digital natives who have both unprecedented access to screens, and brains that have yet to master executive brain functions, like impulse control. Dr. Devorah Heitner, PhD, the author of Screenwise, a book for helping children navigate digital distraction, told Quartz that she is seeing younger and younger children gaining access to the web every year. Netflix does not release viewership information, but a 2016 poll found that 39% of Netflix viewers are between the ages of 13 and 17.
At the same time, that state of psychological isolation Miller references is pervasive in cultures across the world, driven by the rise of connectivity over the last decade. Compounding that, studies show that cyber addiction has a role in suicidal behavior.
In the US, one out of every 33 children suffers from depression. For teens the rate is higher, and can be as high as one out of eight. Of course, not every child who is depressed will commit suicide, but every child who commits suicide fights depression. Suicide was the third leading cause of death among children between 10 and 14, and the second among those 15 to 34.
In response to the criticism that 13 Reasons may be a trigger for those at risk, Netflix has added additional warning labels in front of graphic scenes. There is also an accompanying website for teens in need of help and a nine-minute public service video where the cast, producers and mental health professionals weigh in.
But adding signposts is not the same as crafting an experience that consciously avoids triggering teens at risk. However well-intentioned the creators, signing on to make a Netflix series is 180 degrees apart from the work of a nonprofit that makes films specifically to amplify the voices of youth.
In response to the backlash to 13 Reasons, the actress Selena Gomez—the show’s executive producer—says that the series has started an important conversation. Critics say that the show’s flaws actually make that more difficult. Among the talking points (pdf) provided to teachers and parents by the Jed Foundation is:
When you die you do not get to make a movie or talk to people any more. Leaving a message from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and not possible in real life.
Also in real life, finding ways to talk to teenagers who are wired to want little to do with adults is no simple task. Delaney Ruston, a filmmaker, primary-care doctor and parent behind the documentary Screenagers, about growing up in the digital age, told Quartz the she is concerned that teens may already be too desensitized to the topic. She hopes “adults won’t lose this moment in time to have a conversation with the teenagers around us in emotional pain.”
This moment may not be the only chance to have that discussion. My Suicide will be available to stream for the next two years. Netflix has just announced it is bringing back 13 Reasons for a second season.