Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted has been on my to-watch list for quite some time, and I finally got around to it last weekend. I ended up watching it at around midnight, which by the way was not the best idea. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s based on the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, a woman who spent 18 months in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s after a suicide attempt. As a general rule, I like to not watch movies that relate to suicide so late at night, but here we are!

Unlike most of the movies I watch, I went in not even knowing the basic plot. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on covering this movie for M&M. It was mostly on my watchlist because Winona Ryder is at her absolute peak in this movie and I love her.

Some background about me: I’ve been working in a psychiatric emergency department for three years, doing administrative work in the evenings. Though my work isn’t clinical, I do interact with people who come through the emergency room quite regularly, and participate in meetings where the patients are discussed. Because of this, I am very well acquainted with modern psychiatry, as well as what a typical psychiatric hospitalization looks like.

I am happy to report that things have improved from the standards set in Girl, Interrupted‘s facility, Claymoore. Even Whoopi Goldberg’s nurse Valerie tells Susanna how much better her facility is than the state hospital. And, spoiler alert, I don’t know of many psychiatric facilities that allow you to have pets.

This would be an excellent yet costly therapeutic technique.

However, one exchange between the protagonist and her psychiatrist stood out to me:

I signed myself in, and I should be able to sign myself out.

You signed yourself into our care. We decide when you leave.

The policy referenced here by Dr. Wick remains true to this day in most psychiatric facilities (at least in North Carolina), though there are now numerous laws in place to protect the patient from abuses such as this. And it struck a chord with me because, in my role at the hospital, I am often the person walking through admission paperwork with patients who are coming into the hospital voluntarily.

Aside from these points, I found the movie to be a compelling story of psychiatric hospitalization in an era where institutionalization was falling out of public favor. Though over the top at times, the characterization of the women felt very real — something helped along by its basis on a memoir, I’m sure. I also enjoyed that the movie challenged the idea of mental illness itself, with Susanna often reminding the doctors (and the audience) that there is a thin line between what is considered normal and what is considered an illness.

Despite her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the sociopathic Lisa felt over-the-top to me. The strength of her performance lies in the subtleties, of which there are too few. Lisa’s blatant abuse of Brittany Murphy’s Daisy was almost too villainous and didn’t feel as real as Lisa’s breakdown at the end of the film.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie and it made me want to research this era of psychiatry, especially how women were treated during this time in facilities that weren’t as nice as Claymoore. Plus, the cast is phenomenal and I had multiple “SHE’S IN THIS?” moments that I had to text my friends about. Go watch it (but not at midnight).

Girl, Interrupted (1999): ★★★