Mental Health Awareness Month Retrospective: Girl, Interrupted

Year: 1999

Runtime: 127 minutes

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Susanna Kaysen (book), James Mangold, Lisa Loomer, Anna Hamilton Phelan (screenplay)

Actors: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg

By Joan Amenn

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and in light of Angelina Jolie returning to the screen in the upcoming “The Eternals”, this is a look back at her Oscar winning performance in “Girl, Interrupted” (1999). While intended as a showcase for Winona Ryder who bought the rights to Susanna Kaysen’s book for herself, Jolie steals the film with a riveting portrayal of a charming, seductive sociopath.

Set in the 1960’s much like Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Girl, Interrupted” tells the story of a young woman who might have been misdiagnosed due to the social values of the time. It is implied at the start of the film that Susanna (Ryder) was seduced by a friend of the family who was a professor. Rather than face the consequences of his actions, he may have hinted to her parents that her depressed behavior was a sign of more complex emotional issues. She admits she tried to kill herself but it is not clear if this was because she knew she would be doubted if she told her side of the affair or there was more to her condition. Her parents are clearly very concerned with their upper-class reputations which she rebels against. It seems a matter of convenience to them that she be committed for a time to a mental hospital so that they don’t need to confront some uncomfortable truths about their family.

So poor Susanna is diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder even though she does not seem to have the extreme mood swings or periods of intense rage that can be indicative of this mental health issue. However, another patient at the hospital, Lisa (Jolie) fits this description exactly. Angelina Jolie is charismatic and yet, casually cruel as a young woman whom the system seems to have swallowed whole with no hope of escaping. Dominating over the other patients, who include a very young Elisabeth Moss as a terribly scarred girl due to a self-inflicted punishment, Lisa is something of a headache to the hospital staff. Jolie nails the turbulence churning within her character perfectly, which is all the more astonishing because she is so young to be such a mature and insightful actor.

There are multiple problems with how mental illness is depicted and how it can be treated in “Girl, Interrupted.” A stern scolding from a nurse orderly is certainly not sufficient to encourage a depressed person to seek help, even if that orderly happens to be Whoopi Goldberg, for example. It is also infuriating in never addressing further the implied sexual abuse that was mentioned in the beginning of this article. It is an overly simplified and sanitized depiction of what must have been a traumatic, frightening experience for Susanna. Strangely, a key plot point unfolds with the song, “End of the World” by Skeeter Davis playing just like in the trailer for “The Eternals.” It’s not clear what to make of such an odd coincidence but Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Lisa is reason enough to watch ‘Girl, Interrupted.” She has only gotten better with age even if the roles she has sometimes chosen have not done justice to her skills.

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