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interesting and effective shift in viewer perceptions created by Girl, Interrupted,
a film based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir of her time in a psychiatric hospital during the
1960's. When Susanna (played by Winona Ryder) downs a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of
vodka, her parents send her to see a psychiatrist friend. Why they go through this charade
is unclear - they've already agreed with the shrink that she is to be committed. She
doesn't know it yet, but her bag has been packed and is waiting for her in a taxi parked
at the curb. (Her parents are so self-protective that they won't even take her to the
hospital; mother Kaysen waves good bye tentatively from her car parked safely across the
street. No wonder the girl's a mess.)
So the audience has been recruited immediately to Susanna's side, sympathizing with her against selfish, emotionally distant parents and manipulative shrinks. Once at the hospital, the cliches fly fast and furious, but that's probably inevitable given the setting: the institutional building, the authoritative staff, the restricted privileges, the sedation of patients, patient rebellions, and the range of disorders and strange behaviors. It's almost a required packet of ingredients for a psychiatric hospital flick (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Snake Pit), the way multi-ethnic squads with measured numbers of heroes and cowards once was for war movies.
We still see it through Susanna's eyes, and share in her cynicism and horror at the situation in which she finds herself. With a few flashbacks to fill us in on some of her past experiences, the balance of the film is essentially a series of incidents in her experience at the hospital. Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Girl, Interrupted. The weakness is the lack of any central conflict in the story; the episodic structure lacks any real dramatic momentum and at over two hours running time, it threatens to sink under its own weight - if not under the gallons of kohl they must have used to underline all the patients' eyes.
Still, director James Mangold, drawing excellent performances from his cast, manages to hold it together. Through the accumulation of Susanna's experiences, her perceptions change, and so, too, do the audience's. Susanna, gradually moving from denial to understanding, learns from her therapists (particularly Dr. Wick, played by Vanessa Redgrave), the staff (Nurse Valerie, a nicely understated performance by Whoopi Goldberg), and a variety of experiences with fellow patients. As she acknowledges her problems ("borderline personality disorder"), those at the hospital who were initially resented come to be seen as supportive and helpful, no longer the unreasonable enemy. And the fellow patient she saw as friend and ally (Angelina Jolie, strong and convincing as a sociopath) turns out to be a poor role model, indeed.
It's the shift in Susanna's perceptions that provides the arching structure for the story. And the film's measure of success is that it does take the audience along in that shift, despite the weaknesses of episodic form and underedited length. While there are too many moments when the intense self-involvement of Susanna gets tedious, that may come with this territory. Winona Ryder makes the Susanna role work. Her big dark eyes radiate intelligence; they are eyes that see as well as look and that's good acting. She takes us with her on this journey to sanity.
- Arthur Lazere