Epilepsy is a very complex condition, yet the way it is represented in many movies can be insensitive and far from authentic. Even today, film directors sometimes use outdated stereotypes about people with epilepsy and their seizures.
Epilepsy is often portrayed in troubling ways. Sometimes, seizures are cheaply used for plot twists. Rather than recognizing the human experience of people with epilepsy, seizures are ‘thrown in’ to movies for dramatic effect. Perhaps most insultingly, characters sometimes make casual remarks about ‘fits’ for comic effect.
Let’s take a look at movies where characters with seizures are presented in realistic and authentic ways. Here are eight examples of movies about epilepsy, or where a character has the condition.
Related: 4 famous movie actors with epilepsy
8 movies about epilepsy
We have selected eight movies about epilepsy which represent the condition and people who have epilepsy in a realistic and authentic way. Most importantly, these characters are not defined by their epilepsy - it is just one part of who they are.
First, do no harm
This 1997 drama is a tough but honest portrayal of refractory epilepsy (where medication doesn’t stop seizures). Starring Meryl Streep, it follows the life of a mid-western family whose young son begins having seizures. The anti epileptic drugs he is prescribed cause unpleasant side effects and don’t seem to stop his seizures. Lori, the boy’s mom, eventually discovers the ketogenic diet, which helps him regain seizure control.
2004 indie comedy drama Garden State features Zach Braff as a depressed young man who returns to his hometown, where he falls in love with a girl named Sam (played by Natalie Portman). Sam has epilepsy, and although we do not see her having any seizures in the movie (she has been seizure-free for several years) her health insurance company is trying to make her wear a helmet to protect her in case she falls. This shows people with epilepsy can sometimes be unfairly treated.
Control is a 2007 biopic of 1970s English rock band Joy Division and its singer Ian Curtis. Curtis had epilepsy, and his seizures are represented authentically in the film. Importantly, Curtis’s seizures are not used simply as plot twists - but instead as part of a portrayal of his whole person.
Recommended: The link between music and epilepsy
Another English movie, 2014’s Electricity tells the story of a young woman with epilepsy who learns that her brother - who she thought had died - could be alive. She travels to London to try and find him, and the movie shows how her seizures and medication interact with her journey.
The Exploding Girl
This 2009 movie depicts the story of Ivy, a young college student who has juvenile myoclonic epilepsy and a summer when she returns home to Brooklyn. Again, this character depicts life for someone with epilepsy in a realistic way - whether it’s taking medication, visiting the doctor, or simply going about her normal life.
Avatar: The Way of Water
The sequel to the original Avatar movie was one of 2022’s biggest box office hits. The story follows the Sully family, and has an intriguing subplot around their adopted daughter Kiri (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) who is diagnosed with epilepsy.
Throughout the film, Kiri is shown having heightened visual and auditory experiences and at one point has a seizure. Some of the movie’s characters believe this seizure is triggered by her connection with Eywa, the life force of planet Pandora. But a medical doctor tells the Sully family her visual and emotional experiences are more likely to be caused by frontal lobe epilepsy.
The movie leaves the true cause of Kiri’s seizures unexplained, which is somewhat unsatisfying. The medical explanation for her experiences seems like an interesting representation of someone having seizures and eventually getting diagnosed with epilepsy. But the director then leaves the interpretation open - maybe Kiri’s seizures are ‘magical’ and a sign of her being a ‘special’ person. This would hark back to more outdated representations of the condition.
Documentary movies about epilepsy
There have been several powerful documentary movies about epilepsy including:
Diagnosis epilepsy: now what
A free online documentary and informational film for parents whose children have been diagnosed with epilepsy.
Zach, a film about epilepsy
This documentary follows a day in the life of a child who has a form of severe epilepsy.
What's the time Mister Wolf?
This documentary movie about epilepsy focuses on members of an acting troupe who have epilepsy.
Improving representation in movies about epilepsy
Although epilepsy has traditionally been represented in negative ways in movies, the above list shows portrayals of the condition are improving.
And some people with epilepsy are even creating their own movies to educate others about the condition. Read about Epsy user and filmmaker Miles Levin, whose move Under the Lights portrays a character with seizures.