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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by James Mangold
Cast: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy, Elisabeth Moss, Whoopi Goldberg, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, Joanna Kerns, Mary Kay Place.
1999 – 127 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 15, 1999.

"What exactly is crazy?" This is one of the provocative questions running throughout James Mangold's "Girl, Interrupted," based on Susanna Kaysen's 1993 memoir about her experiences staying in a psychiatric ward in the late '60s. It has been documented that star Winona Ryder has been passionate about a film adaptation of Kaysen's intriguing story (despite her book not following any sort of narrative) for several years, and it was only until she found a home at Columbia Pictures and collaborated with director James Mangold (1996's "Heavy") that everything fell into place. The delays turn out to be well worth the wait, as the picture is one filled with sincerity, frankness, and perception, a highly respectable, realistic endeavor that treats Kaysen's story with the utmost respect.

Susanna (Winona Ryder) is an average 18-year-old who has just recently graduated from high school. Unlike most of her classmates, who are set on what college to go to and what to study, Susanna wants nothing more than to write, something that is often scoffed at by those she tells. After a half-hearted suicide attempt in which she downs vodka with a bottle of aspirin, Susanna's parents literally pack her bags and send her on her way to Claymoore, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts, where she is to stay until the doctor believes she is cured. She checks herself in without giving it a thought, but the unjust thing is that Susanna doesn't seem to belong there--the closest problem she has that resembles a disorder seems to be a bunch of teen angst built up inside.

At Claymoore, she, at first, is able to see she is dissimilar to most of the other residents, but the line between well and sick is gradually blurred when she sparks friendships with several of the other girls living there, including Georgina (Clea Duvall), her roommate, who is called a pathological liar and has a fondness for "The Wizard of Oz"; the sweet-natured Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who once lit half of her face on fire in an attempt to get rid of a rash; and the introverted Daisy (Brittany Murphy), who has an eating disorder involving only consuming her father's rotisserie chickens. Soon after Susanna has arrived, in waltzes Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a long-time patient and sociopath who has once again been caught after she attempted to escape. Susanna and Lisa are very different individuals, but they form a close bond, balancing each other's diverse personalities off of one another. Because Susanna is known to have slept with two men, her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave) believes she is promiscuous, something that bothers Susanna because the standards are so altered between the sexes on who is labeled, more or less, a slut. Worrying her clueless parents, who clearly have more psychological problems than their daughter, Susanna is also diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Claymoore is a discouraging place, as it becomes increasingly apparent, because the people with the major problems are the staff, not the patients, many of which were obviously stuck in the institution to get out of their wealthy family's hair.

As far as the story and developments in the characters go, "Girl, Interrupted" treads on overly familiar ground, and the film is almost never anything other than predictable. What the picture lacks in freshness, however, it more than makes up for it in the outstanding performances across the board, and in the sympathetic, but not sugarcoated, portrayal of the inmates.

Despite the notices that Angelina Jolie has garnered for her performance here (including a Golden Globe nomination), Winona Ryder matches her in every way. Both are superb young actresses, but since Jolie's Lisa is the more outward and flashy character, she is inevitably the one whose talent jumps more quickly off the screen. In contrast, Ryder is subtle and quiet, but all the more genuinely real because of it, and the internal conflicts you sense she is going through are something many teenagers and twentysomethings will be able to identify with. Since Ryder is the one we follow throughout the story (she appears in every scene), without a captivating presence in the role, the film would have collapsed under its own weight, but she more than handles the responsibilities handed to her.

In a smaller turn, Brittany Murphy is the clear standout, in a performance of almost insufferable pain, as Daisy, who is checked out of the hospital by her father and given an apartment to live in, despite her obviously not being prepared to face the outside world. In the most powerful sequence in the film, Susanna and Lisa run away from Claymoore and travel to stay with Daisy for the night, but things take a turn for the worse when Lisa second-guesses exactly who Daisy is--a depressed, frightened girl who is not well enough to be taking care of herself, and who is all set up for a very serious fall. The heartbreaking thing is, Lisa is right, and Daisy knows it. Murphy, usually appearing in comedic roles (1995's "Clueless," 1999's "Drop Dead Gorgeous"), successfully invades her memorably tragic character with equal measures of insecurity and despair.

Supporting parts are all impressive, as well, with Clea Duvall eliciting a sweetness to her ambivalent role as Georgina, and Elisabeth Moss affecting as the regretful Polly, who knows there is no chance of anyone falling in love with her because of her disfigured face. Whoopi Goldberg evokes an important amount of warmth as the most caring nurse in the wing, Valerie, while Jared Leto, as Susanna's past boyfriend, only makes a few fleeting appearances in an underwritten character, but is fine with what he is given.

The confrontational climax, set in the basement of the hospital, threatens to cross the line into melodrama, and it does very briefly, but is saved by the assurance of the actresses. Still, a less commotional, more refined finale might have been the wiser choice, as it would have been staying more in the spirit of what had succeeded it.

An improvement over his uneven 1997 drama, "Copland," James Mangold excels in the area of attracting notable talent and placing the principal cast in commendably juicy roles. But more than anything, "Girl, Interrupted" gains much of its footing from the way in which it loyally follows Susanna through the one year in her life which altered the way she viewed the world. The film persuasively argues that Susanna probably never had anything wrong with her in particular, as she was just going through a natural stage in her growing up process. Yet, in a strange way, that year at Claymoore changed her life all for the better, and, in a sense, aided in the self-discovery of who she really was. For as Susanna states in voice-over as she is looking back at what she was going through in the period of '67-'68, "maybe I was just a girl, interrupted."

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman