Screenplay : James Mangold, Lisa Loomer, and Anna Hamilton Phelan (based on the book by Susanna Kaysen)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Winona Ryder (Susanna), Angelina Jolie (Lisa), Clea DuVall (Georgina), Brittany Murphy (Daisy), Elizabeth Moss (Polly), Jared Leto (Tobias Jacobs), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Potts), Vanessa Redgrave (Dr. Wick), Whoopi Goldberg (Valerie), Mary Kay Place (Mrs. Gilcrest), Travis Fine (John)
At the beginning of "Girl, Interrupted,"18-year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is sent to the fictional Claymoore hospital, an expensive mental institution just outside of Boston, despite her protests that she was not, in fact, trying to commit suicide, when she chased an entire bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka.
But, what "Girl, Interrupted," which was based on Susanna Kaysen's frank and telling memoirs of her two-year stay in a psychiatric hospital, makes clear is that Susanna is not insane or even really suicidal. Because she does not easily fit the prescribed categories of mental illness, the hospital labels her "borderline personality disorder," a phrase that is about as meaningless as three words can be. There is, of course, little doubt that Susanna is spoiled, promiscuous, depressed, unmotivated, and narcissistic--in other words, a lot like many modern teenagers. But, she is definitely not crazy.
This cannot, however, be said for many of the other girls with whom she shares a ward at Claymoore (the ward is looked after by the kindly Nurse Valerie, played by Whoopi Goldberg as a woman of such strength and character that, even when assaulted with racial slurs in one of Susanna's lowest moments, she still remains calm and rational--a pillar in the storm). Georgina (Clea DuVall), Susanna's roommate, is a compulsive liar with an obsession for "The Wizard of Oz." Another patient, Daisy (Brittany Murphy), locks herself in her room and won't eat anything except for rotisserie chicken from her father's deli. Polly (Elizabeth Moss), perhaps the saddest character in the ward, is a young girl who once tried to burn a rash off her face with gasoline and a match, and now has to live the rest of her life with a horribly scarred face.
However, despite these girls' varied mental problems, one of the primary strengths of "Girl, Interrupted" is how director James Mangold allows them to emerge as characters that cannot be defined only by their disorders. Much of the film's enjoyment comes from watching Susanna interact with these girls and develop relationships with them that are based not only on their shared predicament of being confined to a mental institution, but also on trust and respect, which is why a scene at the end where Susanna's diary is read aloud and the girls hear her personal thoughts about them is so affecting.
"Girl, Interrupted" is primarily about Susanna's coming to terms with her emotional instability--in effect, she grows up. Part of this journey concerns her relationship with Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a charming and influential sociopath who has been at Claymoore for eight years and shows no signs of improving. Lisa is, for all intents and purposes, an exaggerated version of the bad kid down the block your parents don't want you hanging out with. Badness has always been a turn-on, and Lisa's smoldering sexuality, ruthlessly foul mouth, and complete disregard for anything other than her own wishes and desires makes her into the ultimate rebel.
This is the kind of role a good actress can really sink her teeth into, and Jolie takes the character and runs with her. Lisa is wicked and cruel, but undeniably appealing, especially in the circumstances. When we first meet her, she is being hauled in by police after her latest escape attempt, a scene that will be repeated later in the film with a much different message about her character. Jolie plays the character to the hilt, and she and Ryder make an appealing and interesting duo. That the film makes the effective sexual undercurrent between the two characters blatant in one clumsy scene can be forgiven.
For the first hour, it seems that Lisa is destined to be the guru of freedom, Susanna is destined to be her disciple-in-training, and "Girl, Interrupted" is on its ways to becoming a scaled back, all-female version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), where the mental institution is a metaphorical stand-in for a repressive society and the patients are symbolic of diversity of character that is controlled through imprisonment.
However, this is not the case. In fact, Susanna eventually embraces the role of psychiatry as a healing agent, and makes the most of her stay at Claymoore in order to gain control over her life again. At the same time, the film makes a 180-degree turnaround in its view of the hospital--from repressive hell-hole to a place of potential healing--which is probably best exemplified in Susanna's move from therapy with a round, bland psychiatrist played Jeffrey Tambor to therapy with an incisive, cunning psychiatrist played by Vanessa Redgrave. The change in tone couldn't be more obvious.
Some critics have seen this shift as the film's chief weakness, but it seems to me to be its greatest strength. Because the formula of rebellion in the mental institution is so worn out, the film is intriguing in its sudden departure from this narrative and its acceptance of the fact that a sociopath breaking the rules is not the same thing as true freedom. Everything Lisa does is not so much a conscious choice as a symptom of her sickness, and Susanna realizes this when she finally gains the courage to tell Lisa she's effectively dead because her heart is cold.
"Girl, Interrupted" is certainly not a flawless film. Some of its sequences are a bit clumsy and misplaced (such as a silly "uplifting" scene where the girls sneak into the bowels of Claymoore and go bowling on an old, manual bowling alley in a storage room). Mangold and his co-screenwriters, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, also would have done well to have more explicitly connected the film's action with its time and place. Although the turbulent '60s are raging outside, we get little sense of its impact outside of news clips on the TV and a rather ineffective sideplot about one of Susanna's boyfriends (Jared Leto) who is drafted to go to Vietnam and instead opts to escape to Canada. Overall, though, it is well-acted (in addition to Ryder and Jolie, Brittany Murphy is excellent as Daisy) and confidently directed; and it offers a penetrating look into a world few of us will (thankfully) never see.
©2000 James Kendrick