Maybe I was just crazy, maybe it was the '60s, or maybe I was just a girl, interrupted.
I read Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted when it was first published in 1993. It's a brilliant memoir of Kaysen's time in a mental facility—she explores how the other residents affect her, how she affects herself, and whether she even belongs there in the first place. But it is not a book I would have ever considered translatable to the big screen. It's a series of moments, connected by the inner thoughts of its protagonist. There's no plot to speak of and not much dialogue either. So I was intrigued when I heard about the movie, and impressed when I first saw it. While retaining its important elements, it had been transformed into a story. And what a story it is: a story of growing up, of reconciling what's in your head with what's all around you, and of taking control of your life.
Facts of the Case
A basement, morning's light seeping through, an injured hand, shattered glass, a syringe. Before we can process the scene, we flash to Susanna (Winona Ryder, Heathers, Reality Bites, Mr. Deeds) on a gurney, a tube down her throat. Flash again to a therapist's office, where Susanna is told she needs a "rest" and will be taken to Claymoore, a nearby mental facility. Additional flashes are interspersed as Susanna travels to Claymoore, and we are given a brief, though fragmented, history of what has brought her to this point: her "suicide attempt," her affair with her father's friend, and her lack of plans after high-school graduation.
Susanna meets Val (Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple, Sister Act, The Deep End of the Ocean), a nurse at Claymoore who gives her (and us) a brief tour of the ward and an introduction to its residents: Janet (Angela Bettis, Bless the Child), Georgina (Clea DuVall, The Faculty, But I'm a Cheerleader), Polly (Elisabeth Moss, The West Wing), and Cynthia (Jillian Armenante, Judging Amy). And then Susanna encounters Lisa (Angelina Jolie, Gia, The Bone Collector, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), dragged back from an escape attempt. With her wild hair and eyes and her disregard for anything other than her own wants, Lisa is frightening and beautiful at the same time. We soon learn that it is exactly this dichotomy that effects the worship of all the other residents—they are afraid of her while they are in love with her.
Soon Susanna settles into the routine of the hospital: meds; checks; supervised bathing; sessions with her therapist (emphasis on the rapist, according to Lisa), Melvin (Jeffrey Tambor, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). She's told that she's been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but she wants to know more. Lisa arranges for some of the residents to break into Melvin's office, and we learn more about them as they view their charts:
Janet is anorexic.
Susanna also has an encounter with Daisy (Brittany Murphy, Clueless, Don't Say a Word, Just Married), who rarely leaves her single room (paid for by daddy dearest). Daisy, as it turns out, will only eat chicken from her father's deli and will only do so in private (equating wanting privacy as food goes in to wanting privacy as food goes out). To add to the strangeness, she keeps the chicken carcasses under her bed. ("When I get five, Valerie makes me throw them out.") Despite all this, Daisy is being released in a month—according to Lisa, because she revealed a major secret.
When the group is taken out for ice cream to celebrate Daisy's last day, Susanna is approached and verbally attacked by the wife of the man she had an affair with. The others come to her defense and we realize that Susanna has become an integral part of the group. But is she becoming too accustomed to life at Claymoore? Is she avoiding life? Will Susanna be released like Daisy or become a lifer like Lisa?
It's a very big question you're faced with, Susanna. The choice of your life. How much will you indulge in your flaws? What are your flaws? Are they flaws? If you embrace them, will you commit yourself to hospital for life? Big questions, big decisions.
The book Girl, Interrupted has been beautifully transformed into the script Girl, Interrupted by director James Mangold (Heavy, Identity) and his co-writers. As well, Mangold has turned his script into a masterpiece of a movie. With haunting yet perfectly appropriate music, a talented cast, and amazing editing, Girl, Interrupted the movie pays true homage to its roots.
As evidenced by the "Isolated Music Score" feature on the DVD, music is quite important to this movie. Sometimes it's there to enhance the mood of a scene (e.g., Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" in the opening scene and Wilco's not-to-be-missed "How to Fight Loneliness" during the montage). Sometimes it's there to remind us of our surroundings (e.g., "The Girl from Ipanema" at the Kaysens' party). And sometimes it's there to make a point (e.g., Skeeter Davis's "End of the World" at Daisy's apartment). Mangold and his crew have chosen perfectly every time.
Try as you might, there is not a dud to be found in this cast of actors. From Winona Ryder's quiet, observing Susanna to Angelina Jolie's wild yet charming Lisa (for which she won an Oscar); from Brittany Murphy's measured and controlled Daisy to Whoopi Goldberg's maternal Val; even down to Dr. Crumble (Kurtwood Smith, Robocop, That '70s Show) and John the orderly (Travis Fine, Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills), the casting is flawless. And so is the acting. From the first, these actors drew me in, made Susanna's world believable and real, and made me feel a part of it.
What most impressed me, though, was the editing, namely the transitions found early in the movie. One of Susanna's problems is "time jumping"—she finds herself losing chunks of time and getting confused about when and where she is. Mangold represents this aspect of her illness by inserting confusing and jarring transitions between scenes. We watch as Susanna, sitting on the basement floor of the hospital, is pushed backward by hands that turn out to be those of a doctor pushing her onto a gurney. Later, in Dr. Crumble's office, Susanna hears the bark of a dog that we soon realize is in her parents' house during their party. Mangold uses such transitions to point out the discontinuity of Susanna's thoughts. It's also a clever way to integrate flashbacks into the main story, effortlessly making them obvious to the audience.
As the transformations from book to script and from script to movie were brilliantly executed, so is the transformation from movie to DVD. Girl, Interrupted is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and I saw no problems whatsoever. The picture is crisp and clean throughout, and the washed-out colors and natural light that give the movie its "'60s feel" are preserved. For the audio transfer, we are offered a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. They are both full, making good use of the bass without overdoing it.
This DVD contains a fair amount of extras. More importantly, this DVD contains a fair amount of extras that all help explain and extend the movie and the story:
• Director's Commentary: This commentary by James Mangold is one
of the most insightful, informative, and non-annoying I've heard. It's just him,
so there's no interrupting or talking over. And he very obviously planned what
he was going to say in advance, which means he doesn't give us filler while
waiting for inspiration to strike and he's not afraid to stop talking for a
moment to let us watch a critical scene.
Girl, Interrupted is a film that needed to be made. It's a "chick flick" that's not a romantic comedy, that doesn't focus on women's relationships with men. In fact, except for the occasional cameo, men aren't really a part of this movie at all. It's the story of one woman's struggle to make sense of herself and the world and how the women around her (her mother, her classmates, her fellow hospital residents) help or hinder that struggle.
Kaysen's book is a masterpiece, but one that is available and appeals only to a decidedly narrow audience. James Mangold used his talents as a writer and a director to bring this masterpiece to a wider audience. Along the way, he made a fantastic film.
The cast and crew of this movie have suffered enough in the psych ward. For their hard work and dedication, they are hereby deemed "recovered" and are free to re-enter the world.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director and Writer James Mangold
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