Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, about her stay in a psychiatric hospital in the late ’60s, is an episodic tale of self-discovery, which isn’t the easiest thing to film. Somehow, though, writer-director James Mangold (Cop Land) has created a linear story that brings Susanna’s experiences into focus without relegating the other characters to the sidelines entirely.
Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a 19-year-old whose sullen, difficult behavior has her upper-middle-class parents convinced of her mental illness. After a very brief meeting with a psychiatrist, she is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and checked into Claymoore Hospital. While there, she meets an array of young women with truly serious problems and develops a particularly intense relationship with Lisa (Angelina Jolie), whose free-spirit behavior masks a ruthless amorality.
Although Girl, Interrupted doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, it does contain remarkable insight into post-adolescent confusion, especially in the context of its time period. The point is made that, in the ’60s, everyone seemed to be going crazy, and the behavioral norms of previous generations were rapidly losing ground. Mangold doesn’t use a sledgehammer to get this across, however, apparently realizing that his audience is smart enough to understand it without too much help.
Mangold also doesn’t glamorize mental illness, a trap some filmmakers have fallen into when dealing with certain character types. Lisa, in particular, could easily have been a sort of rebel anti-heroine, but instead she’s a true sociopath who couldn’t care less how much damage she does to the people around her or to herself. Jolie once again makes a screwed-up, often unpleasant character sympathetic. (That Golden Globe nomination is richly deserved.)
The movie really rests on Ryder’s shoulders, though, and she carries it well. She has long been one of the most underrated actors in the business, and her subtle intelligence makes her perfect for a role in which the character’s journey is more internal than external. Her scenes with Jolie are studies in contrasting acting styles, but they play off each other skillfully.
As he did in Cop Land, Mangold wraps up the story a little too neatly, and he can’t resist throwing in two obligatory chick-movie staples — a warm, no-nonsense mentor (in this case, Whoopi Goldberg as a nurse) and a scene in which the characters start singing together. However, the rest of Girl, Interrupted is a witty and unusually clear-eyed look at life in the “parallel universe” of the psych ward. (R) Rating: 8