In the spring of 1967, Susanna Keyson graduated from high school. However, instead of heading off to college like her peers, Susanna chose to chase a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka in a half-hearted suicide attempt. As a result, Susanna's parents forced her into the Claymoore psychiatric institution, where she was treated for 'borderline personality disorder'. Susanna would end up spending two years within the walls of Claymoore, which she referred to as a 'parallel universe'. During her two-year stay at Claymoore, Susanna kept a journal that was eventually published as the best-selling book "Girl, Interrupted" in 1993, which has been described as a witty and poignant memoir that asks what it really means to be 'mentally ill'.
One of the biggest fans of the book was actress Winona Ryder ("Alien: Resurrection"), who has spent the last two years in a tireless effort to have the book made into a film. Unfortunately, the finished product is somewhat lacking. Though the film's talent includes acclaimed indie director James Mangold ("Copland", "Heavy") and some strong performances by Ryder and Angelina Jolie ("The Bone Collector"), the emotional impact of the story ends up being diminished by the meandering and episodic nature of the film's script-- which is only exacerbated by the film's leisurely pacing.
The story begins with Susanna (Ryder) being banished to Claymoore for 'a long rest', the result of an aborted suicide attempt and frequent hallucinations. Through a series of flashbacks, we are shown both the rebellious and independent aspects of Susanna's personality, as well as the emotional turmoil in her life, both of which she considers to be symptoms of her 'illness'. She quickly becomes familiar with a number of the institution's residents, who include a pathological liar (Clea Duvall of "The Faculty"), a disfigured burn victim (Elizabeth Moss of "The Last Supper"), and an extremely withdrawn agoraphobe (Brittany Murphy of "Freeway"), as well as the people administering her treatment, including the resident psychiatrist (Jeffrey Tambor of "Meet Joe Black"), the cold and detached Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave of "Cradle Will Rock"), and a perceptive head nurse (Whoopi Goldberg of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"). However, Susanna becomes most attached to the free-spirited Lisa (Jolie), a long-time resident of Claymoore who is prone to causing trouble, and the two women become fast friends.
First, the good news-- much can be said for the performances in this film, particularly the two female leads. By far, the best performance would have to go to Jolie, who is solid as the film's loose cannon, a flamboyant and over-the-top sociopathic character that gives the film some much needed spark. Ryder plays Susanna with an appropriately low-key performance, though she begins to waver in a few of the film's more intense scenes, particularly an argument she has with Goldberg's character.
And now the bad news-- despite the presence of two engaging lead actresses, "Girl, Interrupted" is a chore (and often a bore) to watch. If you have seen the aimless trailer for "Girl, Interrupted", then you have a sense of what I mean-- leaving the theater, I could not help but wonder what the point was. The biggest problem with "Girl, Interrupted" is that it is more of a travelogue, which takes the audience on an excursion into a mental institution, pointing out some of the sights along the way. What this approach lacks is a cohesive thematic undercurrent to tie everything together, and so the film unspools without a sense that there is a particular destination in mind. This is further compounded by a number of predictable elements within the plot, as though Mangold (who co-scripted, in addition to directing) was trying to do a paint-by-numbers "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" institutional drama. And though the central theme of Keyson's book was how society perceived and defined mental illness, this theme is inconsistently applied throughout the film, especially in the film's conclusion, which is an anti-climactic, melodramatic, and unsatisfying in terms of what the film is apparently trying to say.
In fact, the only way I could make sense of "Girl, Interrupted" was to view the film as a ringing endorsement for how right wing values helped America navigate the turmoil of the late Sixties (note: the explanation of my framework gives away some plot points, so if you don't want to be surprised, proceed to the last paragraph). It works like this: during the time period in which the story takes place (1967-68), the world was in a state of momentous political and social change. The children of the Baby Boom were coming of age in a much more dynamic and tumultuous world than the relatively stable and prosperous Fifties that they had grown up in. The conflict in Vietnam was escalating, feeding a growing anti-war sentiment both in the United States and around the world. Russia invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the 'Prague Spring' democratic movement. The dream of 'Camelot' died with Senator Robert Kennedy's assassination in a Los Angeles hotel, while the civil rights movement was set back with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which triggered a summer of looting in several major U.S. cities. The Chicago National Democratic Convention was interrupted by hundreds of anti-war protesters, and so on. During the last three years of the Sixties, no corner of the globe was untouched by political unrest.
Viewed in this historical and political context, Susanna would represent the American people of that time, confused and disheartened by the turmoil around them. Susanna then seeks direction and assistance out of the turmoil and has two alternatives, the medical staff of Claymoore, or the 'buck the system' attitude espoused by Lisa. Thus, the medical staff would represent the conservative influences of American society, while Lisa would embody the left-wing elements that sought to change the political landscape through bold and radical actions.
As the story progresses, Susanna eventually learns how ineffective Lisa's disruptive actions are in resolving the turmoil in her life, and on occasion, she sees how the consequences of Lisa's actions are grave. Instead, Susanna turns to the medical staff at Claymoore and begins cooperating with them for her treatment-- in a sense, she has learned the value of working within the system, as opposed to outside of it, to effect change. Furthermore, in the film's closing moments, Susanna speaks of her peers at Claymoore eventually leaving the institution during the Seventies, a time when the political upheaval both in the United States and around the world began to subside. Thus, is "Girl, Interrupted" a subtle treatise on how it was adherence to right-wing values, and not grassroots radicalism, that guided the American people out of the turmoil of the Sixties? It's difficult to say, but it is a much more interesting film that what it actually is when considered in this context.
In closing, "Girl, Interrupted" is only worthwhile for watching Jolie and Ryder in action-- it's too bad the material doesn't live up to their performances. With its predictable and episodic nature, as well as the lack of thematic cohesion in the story (unless you view it as a ringing endorsement for right wing values), "Girl, Interrupted" is a difficult film to sit through for two hours.