Girl, Interrupted (1999) is a surprisingly optimistic and touching psychological thriller. Adapted from the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, it deals with mental illness in the America of the 1960s, against a backdrop of war and shifting society.
Eighteen-year-old wannabe writer Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is committed to a mental institution after tentatively trying to “chase a bottle of aspirin, with a bottle of vodka”. Admitted into Claymore, where paternalistic and judgmental psychiatrists diagnose her as a “promiscuous borderline”, she meets her soon-to-be clique composed of young girls suffering from anorexia, mythomania or schizophrenia. Among them is the charismatic and captivating Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a sociopath who runs away every five months or so and constantly acts out. The two become partners in crime until a tragedy tears them apart.
Faithful to the American society of the 1960s where volatile young women were looked upon as abnormal by the previous generation, the film is quite convincing. Ryder gives an authentic, sometimes even moving performance, and is perfect for the role. Through her, many topics that were delicate or taboo at the time and sometimes still are, are approached and debated. By the way of allusions or short scenes, we can understand exactly in what context the film takes place and what is at stake. Racism is tackled when we hear about the death of Martin Luther King Jr, or through nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), the only dark-skinned woman in the movie who has to deal with racist insults when Susanna has a tantrum. Sexism is broached many times because of Susanna’s refusal to bend to rules imposed by society. She is defined as “promiscuous” because of her relationships, though she refuses the term, convinced that her behavior would not shock if she were a man. Finally, a great taboo, mental illness, is at the center of the movie. The shame parents can feel when their child is placed in a mental institution or exclusion from society are key themes.
Even if Ryder serves as a vehicle to deliver societal messages, it is Jolie who steals the show. The actress was praised for her interpretation when the movie came out and received an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Ferocious yet touching, her presence brings texture to the film, and we find ourselves even hoping she will have more screen-time. The unconventional Lisa saves the movie from falling into the trap of the sappy melodrama.
Nevertheless, while the cast is convincing, the filming isn’t. Director James Mangold always plays safe and provides us with two hours of close-ups and mid shots, a dull soundtrack and repetitive flashbacks. The set might look more interesting from a 2016 point of view thanks to its vintage appearance, but the lack of details and originality quickly disappoints.
When released, Girl, Interrupted was received with very mixed reviews. Even though all agreed on Jolie’s performance, critics were not unanimous when it came to the film itself. Some of its detractors thought the adaptation was too neat and not realistic enough. Susanna Kaysen herself was not satisfied with it, arguing that too many “melodramatic drivels” had been added by Mangold and differed from her true story.
Girl, Interrupted will probably not change your life but it may give you a new perspective. The film has recently resurfaced in the world of 90s nostalgics, helped by the influence of the icons that are now Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. But besides the pretty faces and stylish haircuts, look for the deeper message.
Production : Directed by James Mangold; written by Mr. Mangold, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Susanna Kaysen; director of photography, Jack Green; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Douglas Wick and Cathy Konrad; released by Columbia Pictures.
Running time : 127 minutes.
Cast : Winona Ryder (Susanna), Angelina Jolie (Lisa), Clea Duvall (Georgina), Brittany Murphy (Daisy), Elisabeth Moss (Polly), Jared Leto (Tobias Jacobs), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Potts), Vanessa Redgrave (Dr. Wick) and Whoopi Goldberg (Valerie).