Let’s Talk About Bruno: In Encanto’s OCD Allegory, the Weird Brother Deserves Better
What Rachel May Wants People to Know About Living with OCD
When Bruno shows up on-screen, I recognize him immediately: he knocks on wood, crosses his fingers, holds his breath, throws salt over his shoulder, and steps over the cracks; he has bags under his eyes and isolates himself in the walls. He’s every OCD character in the history of film, from Melvin Udall in Something’s Gotta Give (another sidewalk-crack-avoider), to Howard Hughes in The Aviator (he stays inside so long his nails grow into claws), to Adrian Monk (a compulsive counter and cleaner).
The problem? Every one of these characters has the same stereotypical traits, and in every case, their OCD is used as a punchline—even in Encanto, a movie I find, in all other ways, entrancing.
Thanks to my son, I’ve seen Encanto approximately 9,452 times and listened to the soundtrack even more. When I told his sitter that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was topping the charts, she said, “That’s probably all thanks to Isaac.” The songs are incredible, and the characters are, well, perfection: There’s “the strong lady,” as my son calls Luisa, who has to learn to relax between donkey-hauling sessions to help people around town, and Isabela, who breaks out of her feminine-ideal-constraints to grow cacti and splash in pollen. There’s the mother, Julieta, who cures injuries with her baking, and Aunt Pepa, who controls the weather with her moods. There’s the “ordinary” hero, Maribel, who doesn’t have a magical gift and has to learn, like everyone else, that she matters because of who she is, not what she can do. And then there’s Bruno.
When Maribel first meets Bruno, it’s in his tunnels behind the walls. He saves her from falling over what turns out to be a seven-foot cliff (comedic moment), and then, he says, Bye! and runs away. She chases him through the darkness. Once Mirabel catches up with Bruno, within seconds, she observes his compulsions.For people who live like Bruno, as I once did, this representation is all too real, and anything but funny.
Why did you take the vision? she asks.
Knockknockknockknockonwood! says Bruno, as he raps the house’s frame around him, then sucks in a big breath and holds his cheeks puffed out, crosses his fingers, and walks on.
What does it mean? says Maribel, following him. Is it why you came back, or—?
He lets his breath out with a big sigh.
Tio Bruno? says Maribel.
He turns to face the screen, and we see him uncross his fingers and rap again. Knock knock knock knock knockonwood!, he says to himself, knocking the last rap on his head (cue laughter). He picks up a handful of salt and throws it over his shoulder, into Maribel’s face (more laughter), then does the same with sugar. He invokes a chant for kids, Sana sana, as he hops over the cracks in the floor, and then explains to Mirabel that he’s too scared to patch the wall’s cracks.
Cut to Mirabel, who grimaces, then asks slowly, How long have you been back here? She sees, as we are meant to, that this guy has clearly lost it. Supposedly, it’s hilarious.
But for people who really do live like Bruno, as I once did, isolated in their homes, ashamed of their obsessions and compulsions and feeling unworthy of love, this representation is all too real, and anything but funny. It does feel like you’re living behind the dark walls of the house while everyone else gets to live in full color, enjoying their lives; even people with “milder,” non-debilitating OCD live in pain.
Having OCD is like watching the approach of a train that you’re certain is going to kill you, while you’re stuck on the track with no escape. Your heart races, you sweat, you can’t hear anything anyone is saying because the train is coming. It’s getting louder and closer, you feel it rattling underneath your shoes. It is SO LOUD you can’t think. Rumbling. For you. The wheels squeaking and hauling. It is all you can see and hear and feel. You squint your eyes shut and say a quick prayer, Please no, and wait for the impact—
—but now that the train is on top of you, you see that it’s a ghost train. It’s gliding over you, painless. What? You’re still alive? You look down at your hands, incredulous. This moment of relief fills your body with lightness; you could kiss the ground in gratitude that the train wasn’t real. You’re alive! But already, there’s another one, barreling down the track toward you, and this one is bigger and stronger and looks truly deadly, and you think, last time I prayed and that worked, so this time, I’ll pray again, Please no, because you can’t risk that the prayer wasn’t the thing that saved you last time…
You know it’s absurd, all of it, but you also cannot stop, you cannot risk stopping, because you don’t want to die. Or you don’t want someone else to die. Or you don’t want to inadvertently hurt someone by not picking up the stick on the sidewalk, or you don’t want to walk near the knives because what if, somehow, though you have no real desire to do so, you become the kind of person who wields a knife and hurts yourself or someone else? What if, what if, what if?
People with OCD know their obsessions aren’t “real,” and they know that their compulsions can’t actually prevent the bad thing from happening. But we can’t shake the feeling that unless we do the compulsion, the bad thing will happen. We can’t take the risk that the train could be real. It looks so real, it feels so real. It must be real.
OCD comes in a wide range of symptoms. It affects 1 in 100 people, which amounts to about 2.2 million in the US, and according to the World Health Organization, OCD is one of the top ten most debilitating illnesses worldwide. As the International OCD Foundation explains, OCD consists of both obsessions—“unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings”—and compulsions—“behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her [or their] distress.”
The symptoms usually fall into one of several main categories: scrupulosity (religious obsessions), losing control, contamination, harm, perfectionism, and unwanted sexual thoughts. Compulsions can include repeating behaviors, checking, washing, or mentally reviewing, praying, or other internal compulsions. Sometimes, the rituals are hard to discern and not-so-cinematic. For example, I was a master of avoidance. Instead of coping with a trigger, I’d avoid it altogether, shedding friends and activities I loved until I was limited to simply going to work and coming home.
The one show that’s represented OCD more accurately and reflects some of these complex symptoms is Girls. In season 2, episode 8, Hannah experiences a relapse of the OCD she says she experienced in high school, when she compulsively masturbated, had to move her toothbrushes over and over again because it didn’t feel “quite right,” and checked and re-checked her parents’ doors, until “…it’s three in the morning, and you’re fucking exhausted, and you go to school the next day looking like a zombie.”
For me and many other people with OCD, the work of hiding the disorder is also exhausting and isolating. As a young child, I shared what I experienced with a trusted adult and was told, “That’s weird.” Already ashamed of my thoughts and myself (unable to distinguish between the two), I closed myself off and vowed never to share one of these “weird” thoughts again. I stayed silent for twenty-two years and assumed I was going crazy. At a time when anxiety disorders (of which OCD is a part) and depression are skyrocketing among both children and adults due to the pandemic, it would be helpful to see OCD accurately represented, and to use a mentally ill character for something other than the punchline.
Because the reality of OCD hasn’t typically been accurately portrayed in pop culture, people don’t realize that what they’re experiencing is a treatable disorder. I want people, especially kids, to know that with treatment, OCD can become just a little flicker of a moment in your day, rather than the entirety of it.
Later in the movie, Maribel tells Bruno that the family weirdo often gets a bad rap. And while it’s nice that she’s empathizing with him, it would be nicer if she could recognize who he is beyond his mental illness—not the family weirdo but the person with different ways of seeing the world, the future. Someone highly sensitive to his mother’s disapproval. Someone smart enough to predict that the family fish will surely die one day soon and people who age lose their hair. He’s the family’s truth-teller. (Of course, I’m approaching the film from my perspective as a white woman; I love this review from the perspective of how some immigrant families and families of color cope with mental illness).
At the end of the movie, Bruno emerges from the crumbling house to save the already-saved Mirabel, and encounters the mother who shunned him with her ruthless perfectionism. Abuela’s unrealistic demands, Isabela’s feminine perfection, Luisa’s endless work that defines her worth—these are all part of the perfectionism that’s tied to OCD. Not all perfectionists have OCD, so don’t go calling yourself “so OCD” just because you work too much or keep your room extremely tidy—but most people with OCD do cope with perfectionism. The truth Abuela discovers is that the trauma of violently losing her husband and raising her triplets alone made her cling too tightly to the miracle, and that she can’t control the miracle or her family. She has to let go.
That’s what all the characters learn—to let go. And that’s what OCD treatment ultimately teaches you to do as well. It’s been almost a dozen years since I underwent residential treatment for OCD, and I’ve been in recovery ever since, barely looking back. Medication and Exposure-Response-Prevention are the only known treatments for OCD. ERP helps people confront their uncertainty and fears, to accept the doubt that comes with the disorder. It shows you how to welcome the oncoming train, the mistakes and failures, the possibility that your loved ones will die, that you will die, that life will run its course in the most damaging of ways, that you will get hurt. To accept that yes, my worst fears might come true, and yes, I’m going to do everything I want to do anyway.
That’s how Bruno, Mirabel, and Abuela end up back on the horse together, returning to the family, united again in their imperfections. In that way, Encanto serves people with OCD well. But I wish Bruno had been given, to quote another Lin Manuel Miranda song, a better shot.