Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 06/01/06

Upon its release in 1999, Girl, Interrupted wasn’t high on my list of movies to see. I mean, I have liked Winona Ryder for years, but the reality of her is that she may be one of the prettiest waifs to hit the big screen in decades, she’s at best a middling actress with zero range. And after her initial jump onto the Hollywood A-List, she started choosing really crappy movies to be in. This, of course, came before her shoplifting phase, from which she seems to just about to be starting a comeback.

I recall people reading the book and there are all these pop-culture products that reflect the type of experience portrayed in the film. The “mental institution” situation is almost a new genre, at least for film. I guess this idea gelled for me after Christina Ricci pulled her own version of this with Prozac Nation (2001), which I haven’t seen yet, but will see right after this one. This is my mini-exploration of this genre.

Girl is set in the late 1960’s in a posh mental institution in Boston. Psychiatry and Psychology have changed dramatically since that time and I am not familiar enough with their histories to really analyze the quality of help and diagnosis that Winona’s character receives in this film. Overall, she does seem to get the help that she needs, though her stay is pretty darn long at 18 months. Some other comments that I have read about the film suggest that Susana Kaysen, the author of the memoir/novel, perhaps wasn’t sick at all but just misunderstood and out of step with society at the time. However, Susana as played by Ryder, is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is still a diagnosis used today, though perhaps seen differently than it was 40 years ago.

The film is better than I expected, only because I had pretty low expectations. Director James Mangold, whose more recent film biography of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line (2005) got a lot of reasonable praise, is really a pretty unremarkable director. The film is glossy and moderately pretty. It’s not tough and gritty. It’s mainstream Hollywood all the way, conventional and predictable (I knew someone was going to commit suicide, just had to guess which one).

Of course, Angelina Jolie, who is freakishly skinny in this movie, made her name with her performance and earned as Oscar. She is good, convincingly real, but it’s not Shakespeare she’s dealing with.

The best thing in the film was the definition of ambivalence, the concept that one has strong feelings that are in opposition to one another which causes them to be unable to move or decide. This is in opposition to a common misunderstanding of the word to imply non-commitment being a form of disinterest. It’s interesting, too, that this definition strikes Susana since she is a wordsmith and ultimately achieves “understanding” of her illness through concepts rather than medical definition.

It would be interesting to further pursue this genre of the “mental institution” film, which most notably is represented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Snake Pit (1948), the former of which I am well-familiar with while the latter I have never seen. Also, I think of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and one also thinks of The Bell Jar, though I have only read the book on that one. Of course, next up is Prozac Nation, which I understand is not as good a production as this one. Should be interesting.

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