Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

I had always wanted to see this film, even when it was in the theatres. Most of that was because of Winona Ryder's reputation then. Now it's because the film has become a reference. In fact, I heard someone mention it just the other day, which drove me to finally see it.

The film is based on writer Susanna Kaysen's account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the '60's.

We don't really know much about Susanna (Ryder) when we meet her, just that she's signing herself into this home for what she believes will be a brief stay, all at the insistence of her parents. She finds herself a stranger there, as they all seem to know each other, and most of them seem normal. However, she quickly discovers that their backstories are not hidden well: Polly, who burned half her face right off; Daisy, who will only eat her father's roasted chickens, and who keeps the carcasses under her bed when she's finished; her roommate Georgina, who is a pathological liar. The most normal-seeming of them all is Angelina Jolie's Lisa, who rules this roost with the sheer force of her personality and charisma, and with whom Susanna becomes beguiled.

There's no Nurse Ratched here, although you'll look for one. Instead we find Whoopi Goldberg in a serious role, Nurse Valerie, one that employs her empathic sense well. When Susanna runs from the idiot psychiatrists on staff, she knows that at least Valerie will tell her the truth, a truth Susanna doesn't always want to hear.

We figure out rather quickly that Susanna isn't "borderline personality disorder" at all, as she's been diagnosed, but just a mixed-up, directionless and sometimes depressed teenager. She is clearly not in the same sinking boat as many of her housemates. But, as Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave in a surprisingly stellar role) tells her, she has to want to leave this place and its familiar traps and join the rest of the world.

I can't in my recent memory remember better performances from Ryder or Jolie. Ryder, perhaps with this film, hit the apex of her performing career, while Jolie was just getting started (and won an academy award for this performance). However, while we haven't seen Ryder in anything, really, since then, we've certainly seen Jolie in what seem like really bad choices.

This is a hard-hitting drama that doesn't go down the melodramatic path even though some of the situations seem to land in that territory. The screenplay is brilliant, and the dialogue is right-on and often funny in a deadly sort of way. And its outstanding performances by Ryder and Jolie make it a very moving film, one I highly recommend.

Thumb's up for Girl, Interrupted.


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