Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen’s recollection of her experiences in a mental hospital at the close of the 1960s is adapted into a film that is both gritty and smart, reveling in its examination of the human psyche and how we as a society define insanity.

The story centers on the relationship between Susanna and Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a self-described sanitarium ‘lifer’ who is at once bombastic, bullying, and self-absorbed. You think you have problems? The young ladies at the elite institution have all sorts of mental maladies, some seemingly harmless and some bent on destruction. Is Susanna the only sane one? Even she isn’t sure – she’s the only one of her graduating high school class who didn’t have collegiate plans, a fact that’s drummed into her by each authority figure she comes into contact with. Finally, when Susanna chases a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka, her parents have her committed – for a ‘rest.’

This film appears to pull no punches when it comes to dealing with insanity and the people directly affected by it. While none of the secondary characters is really fleshed out, it’s clear the emphasis is on Susanna and how she relates to the madness surrounding her. It’s a staggeringly difficult dilemma – are you insane, or are you just struggling like everyone else? There are similarities in this movie to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and even to the comedic “The Dream Team,” but what sets this apart from the others in this genre are the performances, particularly by Ryder. It’s never easy to play someone who’s handicapped, despite all appearances to the contrary, but what Ryder needed to do was convey a character who may or may not be a borderline personality, not a clear-cut case. This is a task the actress tackles with gusto. While others in the role might tend to overstate their character’s plight or actions, Ryder takes the subtle approach, reining in her actions and reactions enough to allow the viewer to empathize fully with her.

The flip side of that approach is displayed by Jolie, who is so far over the top with her portrayal of Lisa that the viewer never gets a chance to root for her. In the face of tragedy and suffering, Lisa laughs sarcastically and generally makes people feel worse than ever. It’s obvious from the start that this is a defense mechanism, but like Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining,” because we never see Lisa in a favorable light – or, more importantly, in a sane one – we’re never able to like her. There’s hardly a likeable aspect to Lisa, who seems to become more destructive as the movie progresses (a statement on the healing power of our mental institutions? You be the judge). In other words, Jolie’s character is so completely wacked out from the get-go that no one in the audience can really care about her much, only in how she affects Susanna. Only at the end of the movie do we get a glimpse of the depth of Jolie’s character, but by then you might not care.



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