James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted, based on the book of the same name, can't seem to decide whether its protagonist is crazy or just going through a particularly turbulent adolescence. Unsure of her values, insecure about her worth, resentful of parental expectations and confused by the mixed signals constantly bouncing off the radar screen, Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder, executive producer of the film) seems like a typical teenager, if a bit more angst-ridden then most. But if every teenager who felt disoriented or lost was locked up in a mental ward, every high school in the nation would close down for lack of students.
The real Kaysen spent nearly two years as a patient at McLean Psychiatric Hospital outside Boston, a renowned way station for the likes of James Taylor and Sylvia Plath. Twenty years later, she recounted her stay there in the memoir Girl, Interrupted. Kaysen was 18 when she was committed, and despite her book's wry, somewhat insouciant tone and elliptical style, the reader never doubts that the author isn't just skirting the perimeter of her diagnosed borderline-personality disorder but has actually crossed into alien territory.
The movie's Susanna seems deeply troubled, even depressed, but she doesn't come across as crazy, and she's certainly nothing compared with her psychotic dorm mates at Claymoore Psychiatric Hospital (a stand-in for McLean). The film follows her as she adapts to her new life and slowly bonds with the other girls: her roommate, Georgina (Clea Duvall), a pathological liar; Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who set herself on fire as a child and must now deal with the consequences; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a daddy's girl who refuses to share a room with anyone; and Lisa (Angelina Jolie, in a standout performance), a rebellious, sexy sociopath, as destructive toward herself as she is toward others. At one point, a nurse (well-played by Whoopi Goldberg) tells Susanna she isn't crazy like the other inmates. Is that so viewers, who are being asked to identify with the Ryder character, can feel safe? She's not really crazy, so neither are you, the viewer?
Perhaps it doesn't matter whether the movie's Susanna is really nuts. The film's bigger problem is that almost everything that happens onscreen lacks emotional impact, allowing -- forcing -- the viewer to remain at an emotional distance from Susanna and her plight. The exception is Jolie. She is riveting. Granted, Lisa is the film's showiest role, the film's red-hot center: Jolie, who seems to be cornering the market on wild, amoral characters, is happy to oblige. The other actresses are good, but Jolie's on fire. The film comes alive only when she is onscreen.
Girl, Interrupted doesn't come close to matching the emotional depth and power of Frank Perry's 1962 David and Lisa, the most involving and affecting film I've ever seen about teenagers and mental illness. That film proved as poignant as it was intense, a searing but ultimately cathartic experience for viewers. Nor does Girl, Interrupted suggest the intensely seductive allure of madness the way the book I Never Promised You a Rose Garden does. Susanna talks about a "parallel universe," but we never feel its addictive pull or the strange security it offers. To be fair, Kaysen's memoir didn't focus on this side of things, either -- making it far less emotionally charged than Rose Garden -- and director Mangold (Cop Land), who wrote the screenplay for the film, opted to stay true to the book.
Mangold and his cowriters, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, do an exceptionally fine job of enhancing the source material, which had no real story and didn't go into much detail about the other girls on the ward. In Lisa, they create an antagonist for Susanna -- not a villain but a reference point for both herself and the viewer. They also throw in a series of events and relationships that never happened in Kaysen's memoir but give the film a much needed structure. But even with all this, the viewer is left out of Susanna's orbit.
It's too bad that Girl, Interrupted is rated R, because its target audience -- teenage girls -- may miss seeing it, and they, presumably, are the ones who might be able to relate to Susanna's sense of displacement and recognize themselves traveling a similar path. The movie itself may be disappointing, but it would be worthwhile if young viewers could derive some comfort or sense of hope from Susanna's experiences as she undertakes the difficult task of discovering herself.
Opens Jan. 14.