Girl, Interrupted is a 1999 star-studded “based-on-a-true-story” biopic based on the memoir of the same name by Susanna Kaysen and loosely chronicling Kaysen’s 18 month a late-60s mental hospital. As such a lot of the true-live details have almost certainly been glossed over, and a number of characters documented in the book have vanished, but then the same was true of the current gold standard of movies about mental illness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Awakenings (certainly not Side Effects, which is in my mind an example of cheating the audience.)
As a long-time sufferer of depression, it is my mission to debunk sensationalism and myth from entertainments focusing on mental health issues. My question for my psychotherapist partner about Girl, Interrupted is therefore whether the information on treatment and how such institutions were run is broadly accurate, and indeed if accuracy must be sacrificed to entertainment value, though she felt this to be too close to home and in any case watched the movie some while ago.
Take for example the character Daisy Randone (the late Brittany Murphy), who is sexually abused, has bulimia, is addicted to laxatives, self-harms, will only eat roast chicken in her room, and later commits suicide in her own apartment after taunting by Angelina Jolie‘s Lisa Rowe.
I have no doubt that the basis of the character is based on a real-life case, though I wonder if at least two real life people have not been concatenated at the expense of clinical integrity – the writers, including director James Mangold certainly seem to have thrown the kitchen sink at her.
To my mind, if you are going to make a movie about mental illness, honesty and integrity are crucial, but the danger is that you fall into clichés in the process. Small wonder then that the patients seem very familiar and staff at Claymoore psychiatric hospital seem to bear a close resemblance to those portrayed in OFOTCN. OK, no nasty Nurse Ratched,and Whoopie Goldberg‘s Valerie Owens, RN is basically sympathetic, as is Vanessa Redgrave‘s megastar psychiatrist Dr Sonia Wick. Considering is the 60s, I expected greater harshness and mistreatment of conditions, but then this is not quite the satire that is Cuckoo’s Nest.
If this gives you the impression that Girl, Interrupted is a bad film, let’s debunk that one without delay. It isn’t, and the performances are, to a tee, convincing, credible and effective. Jolie won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, though this is in my estimation the best performance in the Winona Ryder oeuvre, giving credence to a woman who, arguably, is not mentally ill but is struggling for directing and insight into her life, to the extent of attempting suicide via aspirins.
Since the Mental Health establishment regards suicide attempts as synonymous with a mental illness, the chain-smoking wide-eyed whisper-thin Hepburn-lookalike Susanna is voluntarily committed, albeit with strong parental pressure. Although the prettier, Ryder’s Kaysen is a passable depiction of the real Ms Kaysen.
The film then shows Susanna’s interactions with staff and other inmates, coming under the wayward influence of sociopath Lisa, their rebellions against the baleful influence of the hospital’s regime, and her eventual recovery under the eye of Dr Wick thanks to the therapeutic benefits of writing (hear! hear!)
Along the way you meet fine actors in younger mode, including Elisabeth Moss with silicon-assisted facial burns, Jared Leto looking impossibly innocent, Clea DuVall as Susanna’s relatively normal roomie, and the excellent Jeffrey Tambor as a slightly obtuse middle-ranking psychiatrist.
In a poignant summary done in voice over, Susanna says that despite the intense conflicts that arose at the institution, it still holds strong memories for her and she will not readily forget any of those she encountered there. Maybe so, though one suspects in reality she may still feel more than a touch of regret that 18 months of her life was spent cooped up rather than free, though if that was a price worth paying to gain her future career, maybe regret is too strong a word.
Girl, Interrupted is a film worth seeing. It verges on the clichéed on occasions, but makes a competent attempt to adapt the source material. That I was slightly disappointed in the final result is probably more a reflection of my own expectations than Mangold’s work, though you can of course make up your own minds.