With her tense little-girl voice and big round eyes popping with heated questions, Winona Ryder has always radiated the high-strung energy of a brainy young woman who, despite her good looks, doesn’t appear entirely comfortable inside her own skin. Watching her on the screen, you sometimes have the uneasy feeling that the wrong remark could trigger a tantrum that would send furniture flying in all directions.
In ”Girl, Interrupted,” Ms. Ryder (who served as an executive producer) digs hungrily into the role of a neurotic young woman who, in today’s therapeutic parlance, ”acts out” with a vengeance. In conveying her character’s volatile emotional life Ms. Ryder gives her most penetrating screen performance, one that deserves extra credit for not pleading for our love.
During much of the film, adapted from Susanna Kaysen’s best-selling memoir of her nearly two-year stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass., in the late 1960’s, Ms. Ryder’s character, is, to put it plainly, a shrill, whiny pain in the neck. Or as the hospital’s unflappably down-to-earth ward nurse, Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), puts it when Susanna throws one of her tantrums: ”You are a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy.”
What lands Susanna in the hospital (renamed Claymoore for the movie) is an impulsive, half-serious suicide attempt in which she tries to cure a headache by chasing down 50 aspirin with a bottle of vodka. The year is 1967, and the counterculture is blooming. Instead of going to an Ivy League college like many of her friends, Susanna has no future plans other than the vague intention of becoming a writer. When she checks herself into Claymoore (unaware that she can’t voluntarily check herself out) she appears to be the sanest resident in the young women’s ward. It isn’t long before she is itching to be discharged.
Until the movie runs amok with a contrived, melodramatic climax in the basement of the institution, ”Girl, Interrupted,” directed by James Mangold (from a screenplay by Mr. Mangold, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan), succeeds in avoiding the more grotesque snake-pit cliches of films set in mental hospitals.
While it doesn’t begin to match ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in metaphorical resonance and emotional clout, ”Girl, Interrupted” presents a meticulous, true-to-life portrait of a time (the late 1960’s) and place (the hothouse world of upper-middle-class Boston suburbia), where the era’s combustible social stresses drove sensitive young women like Susanna into states of flailing desperation.
Susanna is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, that catch-all psychiatric term for emotionally disturbed people whose symptoms elude neat categories. The movie reminds us how much more paternalistic and morally judgmental the psychiatric profession was in those days. Because she has had a fling with the husband of a friend of her parents, has sex with her boyfriend when he visits her in the hospital, and allows a male attendant to kiss her, Susanna is deemed ”promiscuous,” a label she vehemently rejects.
Most of the other young women in Susanna’s ward are clearly worse off than she. The two deeply troubled patients to whom the movie devotes the most time are Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a young woman obsessed with laxatives and roast chicken who has probably been sexually abused by her father, and Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a charismatic sociopath who becomes Susanna’s best friend and partner in mischief. Daisy, with her father’s support, cajoles her way out of Claymoore long before she is ready to be discharged. Lisa, a longtime inmate, is continually escaping and being hauled back and isolated in a straitjacket.
Ms. Jolie’s ferocious, white-hot performance captures the scary allure of this daredevil and brutal truth teller, the movie’s answer to R. P. McMurphy of ”Cuckoo’s Nest.” ”Girl, Interrupted” tentatively pits Lisa against the hospital staff as contestants vying for Susanna’s soul but loses its nerve in the final scenes by making sure we know that Lisa is really a hopeless nut case.
The film’s emotional grounding wires are the no-nonsense Valerie (Ms. Goldberg at her calm, understated best), who patiently endures Susanna’s racist insults, and Claymoore’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), who is wisdom and compassion incarnate.
”Girl, Interrupted” is a small, intense period piece with a hardheaded tough-love attitude toward lazy, self-indulgent little girls flirting with madness: You can drive yourself crazy, or you can get over it. The choice is yours.
Girl, Interrupter (1999)
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Jared Leto, Brittany Murphy, Elisabeth Moss, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bettis
Screenplay by: James Mangold, Lisa Loomer, Anna Hamilton Phelan
Production Design by: Richard Hoover
Cinematography by: Jack N. Green
Film Editing by: Kevin Tent
Costume Design by: Arianne Phillips
Set Decoration by: Maggie Martin
Art Direction by: Jeff Knipp
Music by: Mychael Danna
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality and suicide.
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: December 21, 1999