Can of Worms (1999)

Can of Worms (1999)

Content warning: depression, mental health

Can of Worms movie poster

Can of Worms might break your heart. But I think it’s a story worth knowing, and I think it can speak strongly to depressed adults. The film was directed by Paul Schneider and based on a book by Kathy Mackel, who was also the screenwriter. As writer Benjamin Austin notes, this film has a reputable voice cast, including Tara Strong, for its alien creatures — and its human bully character is actually on par intellectually with the protagonist.

Mike Pillsbury (Michael Schulman) is a computer whiz kid who doesn’t fit in at school. The most important people in his life are his friend Nick (Adam Wylie) and Nick’s brother Jay (Andrew Ducote). He loves to tell Jay and Nick stories in the backyard treehouse. At school, Mike befriends a cheerleader named Katelyn Sandman (Erika Christensen) who is enamored with his tech skills. She notices him when he uses a floppy disk to tweak all the computers in class and embarrass a bully named Scott Schreiber. Mike puts Schreiber’s face on the head of a pig with its butt turned to the screen. Yep, that really impresses Katelyn Sandman. She enlists Mike to help her with decorations for the school’s Halloween dance. This is great for Mike — he finally feels wanted and helpful, and he crafts an incredible setup for the dance, full of lights, pumpkins, and special effects. He even designs a light-up cummerbund for himself to wear with his tuxedo.

Schreiber can’t stand that Mike is getting attention and praise from Katelyn, so he sets out to sabotage Mike’s decorations by lighting Mike’s technologically-advanced decor on fire. To make matters worse, Mike tries to stop a teacher from putting out the flames, and she accidentally sprays him with the fire extinguisher. Mike is humiliated and runs home. Using an intricate contraption involving his family’s satellite dish, Mike yells into the void and begs to be taken away from his painful life on earth. He explains to “fellow citizens of this galaxy” that he doesn’t belong where he is, that his “potential to realize a happy and fulfilled life [is] nullified” by cruel earthlings. The next day at school is rotten, and even Katelyn Sandman doesn’t want to talk to him. She later calls and apologizes, just as Mike is meeting an alien in his room. Those “fellow citizens” have listened, and they’re all trying to snatch up Mike. A talking dog named Barnabus tells him that by sending up a satellite signal with his plea for help, Mike alerted other life forms that earth was more technologically advanced than they realized, which is apparently bad. Aliens of all shapes and varieties solicit Mike to join them on their planets. He finally resigns himself to a fate away from earth.

When attempting to tell Katelyn goodbye, Mike says: “For a while, you gave me a feeling that no one else ever did. … That I belonged here.” Before he can do anything else, the most evil alien, the Thoad, comes to take Mike away. Nick’s brother Jay walks toward a bright light and accidentally steps right into an evil trap. The kids get Schreiber the bully to help them, convincing him that it would be a heroic action. They’re all transported to some other-worldly alien place. The Thoad has captured Jay and Schreiber. Mike recognizes this place and its creatures from his own stories. He’s able to free all the Thoad’s prisoners, including Jay and Schreiber.

Mike concludes, “Earth is my home, and even though it doesn’t always feel like it, I guess it’s where I belong.” In Mike, perhaps we’re meant to feel less alone. As Mike demonstrates, feeling like an outsider takes its toll. Even if your dad forces you to play football, or if a bully makes fun of you, or if nothing in your life seems to go right, you do belong. There are people who care about you. I mean this seriously, and if you ever need it, I’d encourage you to contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

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