REVIEW: Girl, Interrupted (1999)

girlint_poster1967 New England: high school graduate Susannah Kaysen (Winona Ryder) suffers a nervous breakdown and takes a drug overdose. Admitted into psychiatric care, she finds herself embedded in a unfamiliar environment with a group of young women – each suffering from their own mental illness. She is particularly drawn towards Lisa (Angelina Jolie), who has lived in institutional care for eight years and urges Susannah to resist the system that has trapped her.

Girl, Interrupted is a 1999 drama based on Susannah Kaysen’s memoir and directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan). It was developed by Winona Ryder – who also acted as a producer – as a starring vehicle. It is well directed by Mangold; the film was his third after Heavy (1995) and Copland (1997). The performances are, for the most part, excellent. The screenplay is, however, absolutely terrible. With a core this weak, no amount of surrounding talent can support it. I have not read Kaysen’s memoir, so cannot tell if the fault is with her book or with Mangold, Lisa Loomer, and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s screenplay. Either way it is bad enough that everybody else has made a wasted effort. It’s an entertaining film, but weakly so.

Character is a particular flaw. While Susannah herself is reasonably well crafted and three-dimensional, her fellow patients are not so lucky. They exist not as individual characters but as a string of tics and quirks. Georgina (Clea Duvall) is a compulsive liar. Polly (Elisabeth Moss) is a child in a teenager’s body. Daisy (Brittany Murphy) is a bulimic. Their illnesses are simplistic and crassly easy to follow. They lack any form of complexity. They exist entirely as cyphers for Susannah’s story. Even the hospital staff, including characters played by Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave, are thinly drawn.

It is also mostly true of Lisa, the character who gets the lion’s share of screentime after Susannah. She feels as if she has more depth, but in fact she simply has more of the same material. Familiarity fools the viewer into believing there is something there to be read and absorbed, when like everybody else she’s effectively furniture for Susannah’s story to sit on.

The acting does not save the story, but it does make it palatable. Ryder gives a wonderfully heartfelt performance in the lead; it is arguably one of the best pieces of acting in her career. Angelina Jolie works Lisa with flair and for show, making her an obvious highlight – she won an Oscar for her work – but also a valuable contrast to Ryder’s more inward-looking part. Duvall, Murphy, and Moss are all in excellent form, and valiantly fake a few layers on top of what the writing has left them. Murphy in particular excels. She was a tremendous actor let down by the roles she was given, and her untimely death in 2009 robbed Hollywood of one of its most promising actors.

Everything is well designed. Mangold and cinematographer Jack N. Green give the film an authentic look and feel. It is all kind of wasted. Girl, Interrupted is well-performed but hollow – and ultimately unsatisfying.

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