Z To A: Girl, Interrupted (1999)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Winona Ryder stars in the fascinating true story of a young woman’s life-altering stay at a famous psychiatric hospital in the turbulent late 1960s. Questionably diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Susanna (Ryder) rebels against the head nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) and top psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave), choosing instead to befriend the resident “loonies”- a group of troubled women including the seductively charismatic sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie). But Susanna quickly learns if she wants her freedom, she’ll have to face the person who terrifies her most of all: herself.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Girl, Interrupted came out during a time in my life when I was looking for answers. In a way it couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. I had discovered the memoir it was based on and a substitute English teacher had recommended The Bell Jar for an independent study. I was just beginning to understand mental illness through literature.

You could say this film was part of the road map that helped me figure myself out. Do I have Borderline Personality Disorder like Susanna Kaysen? The answer is no, but I understood aspects of her problems, both on and offscreen. And above all, I identified and empathized with what she and her fellow patients went through.

What’s interesting is how Interrupted represents mental illness. Yes, the characters in the book and film have obvious issues and problems. However, at times their problems are indistinguishable from anyone else’s.

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This poses the idea that anyone could be susceptible to what lands Susanna in a mental hospital. There are facets of her disorder that bleed into how the narrative unfolds- namely jumps forward and backward in time (not unlike the “post-traumatic chill” that permeates Martha Marcy May Marlene) or her delusions about losing the bones in her hand. On the other hand there is an rebellious ennui that overshadows everything else, enough that Claymoore’s head nurse (Goldberg) describes her as “a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy.”

There is an element of truth in this, and in a way Susanna is a stand-in for many young women who consider themselves “different” or “precarious.” The film also suggests Susanna’s recovery is a choice. She is told this explicitly at one point. It is up to her to decide where she is going and how her story will unfold.

To a certain extent that holds true as well. Choice does play a part in how people deal with mental illness. However not everyone has that luxury.

This is reflected in the characters that surround Susanna in her new environment. I have to give kudos to the actresses who bring them to life. The way they are depicted in the book is fragmented and their issues are as inexplicable and mysterious as what plagues Susanna’s progress. In the film they are full-blooded characters- troubled, broken and misunderstood- and have so little time to telegraph their stories to an audience.

There is Polly (a young Elisabeth Moss), a young girl who lit herself on fire; Georgina (Clea DuVall), a shy pathological liar; Janet (Angela Bettis), a volatile anorexic; Cynthia (Jillian Armenante), who was apparently committed for being gay, and several others. There is also a tour-de-force of entitlement and instability in Daisy (Brittany Murphy), who suffers from OCD, sexual abuse at the hands of her father and shakily lashes out at anyone in her path.

I will always have affection for Murphy’s Tai in Clueless, but there’s something self-contained and tragic about her in this film. In my opinion it’s the best thing she ever did.

And then there’s Lisa. Without a doubt this performance is my favorite thing Angelina Jolie has done as well. It also marks the last time I saw her inhabit and enjoy a character for fifteen years.

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If one thing resonates in this film it’s Lisa, who is even more magnetic than Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). It’s too easy for her to overshadow everyone else and freeing to watch, no matter how horrible she chooses to be. Lisa has no scruples about expressing her emotions and impulses. The problem is she delights in harassing or inflicting damage on others without a second thought. Hence her diagnosis: “sociopath.”

In comparison Winona Ryder’s work as Susanna is easier to take for granted. Her performance is angst-ridden but subtle, almost invisible compared to the outbursts of her co-stars. I’ve never seen Ryder more committed to a character and her emotional state during each scene. Like Murphy and Jolie it is another favorite performance, and I always find it strange that people don’t mention it more often.

Upon re-watching Interrupted I think my attachment to it was due to my age when I watched it (much like Hamlet or The Virgin Suicides). I needed it to understand myself and others, and even now my nostalgia for it outweighs what doesn’t work. After all, it’s still a rarity in mainstream cinema: a drama with a nearly all-female cast, addressing the frailties of being young and self-destructive. When I saw it I had never seen female characters at odds with themselves.

On the other hand, the film isn’t without its flaws, mainly in that it resolves itself too eagerly and easily. As I mentioned before, Susanna’s recovery is based on choice rather than adapting or coping. The problematic ways the hospital conducts its business is quickly forgotten as she gives herself over to therapy- basically talking her disorder away.

As anyone who suffers from mental illness knows, that simply doesn’t happen. Susanna is deemed a “recovered borderline” in the end without any doubt or question.

In the meantime Lisa proves to be the real antagonist, which is kind of a disappointment and a bit contrived. Even her lines tell you so:

To be honest I’m not a big fan of the shout-off in the basement near the end of the film. It’s too much. If Interrupted had stuck to its source material it could have been more of a puzzle about the human mind or a statement on the times, particularly concerning the treatment and confinement of young women. Instead the film blindsides itself with a tidy ending- but then again, deciding how and when to end a story is something films suffer from all the time.

What I found myself remembering the most was Susanna’s insistence that craziness is not all that different from a normal state of being.

It’s a statement taken directly from Kaysen’s text and rings unbearably true. In my opinion that’s what I took from the film more than anything else. Whether crazy or sane (and I’m still questioning what that means) sometimes we’re at odd with our inner lives.

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