Is there any possible way to deny that ingesting an entire bottle of aspirin and a bottle of vodka is a suicide attempt? I questioned that while I watched Girl, Interrupted, and I figured that the answer had to be an emphatic “no,” although the film makes no decision one way or the other. That’s one of the many reasons that Susanna (Winona Ryder) has been forced into a mental institution, although she claims that she was only trying to get rid of a headache.
Unbeknownst to her, once you sign into a mental hospital, you can’t leave until they tell you so. She’s now trapped, which may actually be for the best. We see inside her head with a ton of flashbacks near the beginning, and it’s probably good that she’s getting psychological help. She’s diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which quick research tells me is characterized by “impulsiveness, extreme mood swings, and often aggressiveness.” The film defines it as sexual promiscuity, among other things.
So Susanna ends up getting stuck in the hospital, with a diagnosis that she doesn’t believe in. Do we believe it? I didn’t really. She seemed pretty sane to me, although compared to most of the other patients in the hospital, most people would look sane. They’re all forced to act as crazy as possible so that Susanna contrasts well with them. They each get a different diagnosis too, because having two mental patients with the same condition would get boring. One of the girls burned her face when she was young, one of them is a compulsive liar and one of them has an eating disorder. Pretty much all other mental disorders are represented here as well, but they don’t feature all that prominently. And then there’s Lisa (Angelina Jolie), the sociopath who we first meet kicking and screaming.
Susanna and Lisa slowly become friends. As they should. They’re both the most sane people in the hospital. Or at least, they both appear to be. Whether or not either is crazy or sane is something that will be revealed later, and I’m not going to spoil that. Their relationship ends up driving the film forward, all while Susanna embarks on a journey of self-discover, while being forced to stay in the hospital. There’s nothing better to do, I guess, so she might as well “get better” if there was anything to recover from in the first place.
This is how we spend most of our time. Susanna spends more than a year in this place, and we get to see all of the big moments, as well as some smaller ones, during her time spent there. We get to spend a ton of time with our two lead characters, particularly Susanna, which is a good thing. Lisa plays more of a drifter character, disappearing whenever she feels like, which is passed off as her escape attempts. She’s been at the institution for eight years, after all.
By giving us so much time with our main character, we get to watch her grow, while also learning about her past. This isn’t done seamlessly, especially not at the beginning, where we get a lot of flashbacks interrupting what’s going on. I figure that’s supposed to represent her fragile state of mind before entering the facility, but it came across more as a distraction.
After we stop getting flashbacks, things happen without much effort, coming across organically instead of feeling forced. We learn about Susanna, and we start to care about her, even if she’s not the greatest person to ever walk the Earth. The same goes for every other person in this movie. We want to see them all overcome their problems by the end, which is important in a drama.
We do occasionally enter melodrama territory, which is too bad. When it feels like your feelings are being manipulated, it’s harder to enjoy yourself. Girl, Interrupted was based on a memoir by the real Susanna, but the movie has plot threads that never actually happened. Obviously certain liberties have to be taken, but I’ve heard that the ones created just for the movie added melodrama that wasn’t present in real life.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t still work for the most part, as we get involved enough with Susanna’s life to not care that we’re partially being manipulated. Since we end up caring a lot about her, we don’t mind having some plot points that didn’t actually exist. We’re completely involved in the story of Girl, Interrupted, and that immersion makes it a very good film. It also, thankfully, has enough moments of levity, even ending on a mostly happy note, which is something that it has over a certain other mental institution film.
Winona Ryder was a great choice to play the lead, as she manages to tell us exactly what her character is feeling at all times. With a movie that’s about the psyche of its characters, this is key. Jolie has a solid performance as the free-spirited Lisa, while supporting cast members come from Brittany Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave. They all make their characters seem effortless, which is something to commend.
While I can’t exactly say that Girl, Interrupted was a great movie, it was a very good one that made me care deeply for its main character, while showing the inner workings of a mental institution. It shows us in great detail the psyche of Susanna, while leaving enough room for its secondary characters as well. It sometimes slips into melodrama territory, but I didn’t mind that much because of how involved I felt with the story.