By David Flapan
This is a film that was an accomplishment to just get produced. It takes place in the late 1960s, its cast is virtually all female, and it features an intense subject matter, set at a mental hospital. But it also tells fascinating stories, and carries powerful messages to which we can all relate.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name, Girl, Interrupted stars Winona Ryder (Little Women, Age of Innocence) as Susanna Kaysen, a 17-year-old girl who voluntarily checks herself into Claymoore, a psychiatric institution. She is there for about 18 months, and most of the film chronicles her adventures. Whoopi Goldberg (Color Purple, Ghost) is Valerie, a nurse at the facility. An amazing ensemble of up-and-coming female actresses rounds out the cast. Most notable is Angelina Jolie (Gia), who plays Lisa, a charismatic and complex sociopath with whom Susanna becomes fascinated.
The early scenes of the film show Susanna making her journey to Claymoore, intercut with flashback-style scenes from her life to explain why she checking in. Initially annoying, this storytelling device soon showed its effectiveness, as we got to know and understand Susanna's motivations for going.
To tell much more about the plot would be unfair, as there are many surprises and relevations that, like in any good film, viewers should experience firsthand and without expectations. Girl, Interrupted, however, does succeed in exploring many of the complex issues of females in this age group, like the fine lines between confinement and freedom, friendship and betrayal, and madness and sanity. These issues are worthy of exploration for everyone, without regard to age, gender, or even setting, as they are timeless and boundless.
Winona Ryder had embraced the book when she was 21. "I was blown away by it," says Ryder. "It is incredibly honest, courageous, and sensitive." When she found that the rights to bring it to the screen had already been optioned, she contacted the producer, Douglas Wick, and asked to come on board. With her star status attached to the project, Columbia Pictures suddenly decided to green-light the film. James Mangold (Cop Land) directed from the screenplay based on Kaysen's memoir. From the beginning, he was hooked. "The book is filled with amazing characters, philosophies, and observations on life," beamed the director.
The filmmakers actually got a stroke of luck when they found an actual working hospital and were allowed to set up a makeshift studio in one of its unused wings. Inside Harrisburg State Hospital, production designer Richard Hoover created an entire ward, including bedrooms, nurses stations, a living room, and other facilities. Then they dressed it all up with fashions, fixtures, and colors from the late 1960s. The effect is a realistic setting that doubled effectively as Claymoore.
Despite a premise that was initially less than appealing to this male reviewer, Girl, Interrupted captures the imagination of everyone in the audience, and realistically and brutally depicts some of the countless issues growing up in a changing world. Very few dull moments are present, all scenes necessarily contribute to the picture, and I was kept riveted throughout. Ryder, and even more so Jolie, deserve recognition for their acting achievements. Hopefully, this film will catalyze discussion about the many subjects explored.