Mental Health Awareness Month: Benny and Joon

Year: 1993
Run Time: 98 minutes
Directors: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Writers:  Barry Berman, Jeremiah S. Chechik, Leslie McNeil
Stars: Mary Stuart Masterson, Johnny Depp, Aidan Quinn, Julianne Moore

By Kristy Strouse

“Benny and Joon” (1993) is an odd little concoction of a film. On one hand, it has its cuteness and quirk, and on the other- is a very serious example of one’s struggle with mental illness. Neither can be overlooked, nor appreciated without the other, throughout the course of the film. The melding of these makes it a charismatic picture.

Joon Pearl (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Benny Pearl (Aidan Quinn) are brother and sister. She’s an artist, he’s a mechanic, and he looks after her as her mental illness keeps her from living on her own. They have their own rhythm, and there is safety and harmony in their shared life, but it’s obvious both want more.

benny johnny
Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson in Benny & Joon (1993) © 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After a loss at a friends poker game, Joon and Benny have a new houseguest: the offbeat, Sam, played by Johnny Depp. The performance is one that really stands out within the film, not only as the catalyst that shakes up their homelife, but also as an injection of humor that works to enliven both of the other main characters. As Joon and Sam start to spend more time together she discovers love, and their courtship is one that seems unusual at first, but somehow caters perfectly to the characters. When the two finally acknowledge their feelings, it seems earned. His entry also deeply impacts Benny’s life, as he starts to expand upon the confined lifestyle he had become accustomed to, and meets love interest, Ruthie ( Julianne Moore). The shift in both of their lives is fitting.

“Benny and Joon” (1993) is an odd little concoction of a film. On one hand, it has its cuteness and quirk, and on the other- is a very serious example of one’s struggle with mental illness.”

There’s plenty of comedy and romance. Some of Depp’s physicality is quite on par with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and it makes it hard to not smile. Undoubtedly, despite the romantic relationship (and it’s off-beat origins) the real love of the film is connected with the titular characters: it’s between brother and sister. These two have been looking after one another since their parents died, and while Benny feels he may be more of the caretaker, he’s not able to let go of Joon so easily, himself.

benny and joon
Johnny Depp and Ramsin Amirkhas in Benny & Joon (1993) © 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Joon suffers from hallucinations and has emotional episodes, some of which are hard to watch. However, Masterson plays her with sensitivity, giving ambiance to a sometimes, unfortunately one-note character trait. When, if you are someone who deals with mental illness, you know it’s anything but. There are many grooves and edges, moments of tranquility and terrifying hopelessness, and Benny and Joon makes sure to invoke both.

“It’s a rather unexpectedly soulful film, even in moments of silliness, which is what makes it endearing. Mental illness isn’t shied away from in this film, but it also isn’t the controlling element, which can inspiring to consider.”

From the beginning to end we’re delighted with the Proclaimer’s “I’m Gonna be (500 Miles)” and it’s enough to swoon most into this world with a sense of ease. I mention the song because, sometimes, thematically, there’s a heavy impression left with an introduction to a specific song. This one, in particular, works as book ends to showcase the film’s unorthodox intro and matching end.

benny and joon 1
Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Aidan Quinn in Benny & Joon (1993) © 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By its finale, “Benny and Joon”‘ is inherently…sweet. Its close symbolizes openings, new beginnings, and the idea that we’re all different, and maybe, regardless, there’s someone out there that fits with us, just as we are. It’s a rather unexpectedly soulful film, even in moments of silliness, which is what makes it endearing. Mental illness isn’t shied away from in this film, but it also isn’t the controlling element, which can inspiring to consider. There should be a recognizable element of the good and bad, because, for most us of, as we’re maneuvering that murky middle, and if you’re searching for a little unconventional, “Benny and Joon” is sure to be a joy.

 

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