Based on a true story or perhaps countless true stories, Girl, Interrupted is about how a 60s culture dealt with mental illness. We are given access to the story through the eyes of Susanna Kaysen, played in the movie by Winona Ryder. Kaysen’s memoirs of the same name were adapted for the screen by director James Mangold and Lisa Loomer. According to Kaysen, the finished product was a film with too much “melodramatic drivel.”
For the most part, Kaysen is correct. While Girl, Interrupted is well-acted and looks pretty good, it lacks the meandering quality of the memoirs and attempts too rigid a plotline. Instead of perhaps talking about the system of mental health care and how problems were dealt with at the fictional Claymoore Hospital (for Kaysen, the real facility was McLean Hospital), Mangold veers down a path of melodramatic posturing and blows momentum with a problematic third act.
Susanna is 18-years-old. She’s what we could call a typical teenager, except one day she downed a bottle of pills and chased it with a bottle of vodka. Who knows? Maybe that’s still typical teen stuff. Susanna “voluntarily” checks herself in to Claymoore Hospital and meets the supervising nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) upon arrival. She’s whisked into an almost magical world of various patients suffering with various conditions. They’re all jammed on to the same basic floor in the hospital, regardless of the severity of the condition.
There’s burn victim Polly (Elisabeth Moss), pathological liar Georgina Tuskin (Clea DuVall), the abused and self-abusive Daisy Randone (Brittany Murphy), anorexic Janet Webber (Angela Bettis), lesbian Cynthia (Jillian Armenante), and some others. The “leader of the pack,” so to speak, is a wild sociopath named Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie). As Susanna gets to know the various people in the hospital, she starts to make friends and realizes something she never had in the “outside world.” The cost of these friends turns out to be more significant than she ever thought possible.
Kaysen’s memoirs detail what is described as two years of life lost. She is now a “recovered borderline personality,” apparently, so perhaps those years weren’t lost after all. The events of her life are shrouded in some ambiguity, as the memoirs reflect, but Mangold’s picture leaves none of that to the imagination. Instead of psychological meanderings, we’re given direct, sharp plot points complete with a runaway trip to visit a released patient and a stupid conclusion in the bowels of the hospital.
But the reason to see Girl, Interrupted really has little to do with whether or not Mangold got Kaysen’s memoirs quite right. The real reason to see this movie has to do with the performances. Frankly, they’re all very good from the top to the bottom of the cast. Goldberg is comforting and amusing as the supervising nurse, while Ryder plays a convincing lead character yet again. Murphy puts forth what is doubtlessly the best performance of her haphazard and perplexing career, too.
It is Angelina Jolie, in her Oscar-winning performance, who really knocks it out of the park though. She’s a loose cannon in every sense of the word, launching herself headfirst into the role of Lisa with a sort of impish, disrespectful abandon. There’s nothing to her and there’s everything to her, all at once, as she’s able to shift gears on a dime and really give her character deep, weighty context. It’s easy to play a crazy person; it’s less easy to make that person relevant and ultimately human.
Overall, however, Mangold simply dropped the ball here. Despite being given the gift of solid performances and a great cast, he fiddles and fusses with the material too much to make much of an impact. There’s too much convolution outside of the hospital and too little concern with why these women are there inside the facility. It’s almost as though they become caricatures only saved by the quality of the performances behind them. As such, Girl, Interrupted is nowhere near as good as it could have been.