Girl, Interrupted (1999)


By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Girls In Trouble, Again

What is it that makes girls in trouble so interesting? Think about all the novels, memoirs, biographies, songs, movies of the week, TV shows, and movies that have investigated, spectacularized, and basically codified the idea that girls are in trouble by definition in most cultures, cultures which, not coincidentally, tend to revolve around men and boys.

Given this context (and implacable logic) for stories of girls in trouble, the stories themselves follow a certain structure. While social and political frameworks have changed over years and places, as have promotional strategies and production methods, said girls are usually endangered by all kinds of forces “larger than themselves,” for examples, from reefer madness, bad boys driving convertibles or riding motorcycles, drug dealers or pimps, unwanted pregnancies, sadistic teachers, jungle wildlife, aliens from outer space, high school prom queens, serial killers, lascivious relatives, even icebergs. In all cases, the fundamental notion is this: the girl is in trouble because she’s a girl.

This trouble — especially when fictionalized or otherwise shaped for mass consumption — often takes the form of “personal” crisis (you know, sex-race-gender-class-age identity issues, also known as concerns about fitting in). This form makes sense, because it ensures that the girl’s crisis be resolved by a return from her internalized anxiety to an awaiting external comfort. In other words, the girl’s social surroundings are good, they’re what will save her: if only she can realize that her fretting or rebelling is only her problem, and that what she perceives as restrictions are really rules set up to help her to be healthy, to be well, to conform, to be good, complacent, and cozy in her place. Sometimes the girl’s own story is (potential) dynamite, revealing defects in these surroundings, say, the cultural expectations of girls are traditionally and typically abusive and exploitative — think The Bell Jar or I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. But even these troubling stories of girls in trouble can be turned back round to make the girl look happy to conform, or dead, in the case of Sylvia Plath, if she doesn’t. Hmmm. Which is the better option?

I admit, I had a feeling that Girl, Interrupted would be more of the same. And yet, I was looking forward to seeing it, hoping that it would be different. I know I should know better. But I see how I came to feel optimistic. Take, for example, the title, which suggests a certain self-consciousness about this process of coming into being (though, looking back, I can see that the becoming is only supposed to be interrupted, not derailed, which was more the plot I had in mind…). I had heard good things about Susanna Kaysen’s acclaimed book. And, okay, I probably hoped that the director, James Mangold, who made the decidedly movies Heavy and Copland, would be able to avoid the cliches. And then I was likely blinded by my abiding affection for Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, surprising, intelligent, and versatile performers.

For all my hopes, however, the movie is exactly what I feared: more of the same. The story is about a girl getting uninterrupted, that is, back on track.

I see now that the warning signs were in place before I went to the theater. The feel-good soundtrack (including the Doors, Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Aretha Franklin) is marketing a strange nostalgia for a time and place — 1967, US — when, really, life usually sucked for girls. Then there’s the ad campaign, featuring that fabulously large Winona Face, jaggedly ripped across the middle, which is dramatic to the point of silliness. And —perhaps worst of all — the credits list includes Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave, both respected performers, of course, but not prone — at least lately — to selecting strong material. Remember Redgrave in The House of the Spirits, Deep Impact, or Mission Impossible? And Whoopi: when was her last role where she wasn’t patiently instructing obtuse white folks in moral matters?

In Girl, Interrupted, Goldberg plays Nurse Valerie, a character whose very name gives away her function. Nurse Valerie is the chief day nurse at Claymoore Hospital, outside Boston, a place where girls in trouble are therapized and medicated (and sometimes electro-shocked) back into normalcy. The patient who leads us into this suburban house of horrors is Susanna (Ryder), whose crime against the local tranquility appears to be “chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka,” as well as some previous acting out in the form of acting depressed, not doing her homework, being “promiscuous” (though the only “boyfriend” we see is Jared Leto, obviously not someone with whom viewers are supposed to have problems), and oh yeah, sleeping with one of her high school teachers (who apparently never gets called on it himself, and whose insipid wife [Mary Kay Place] blames “little tramp” Susanna).

Given all this background, Dr. Crumble (!) suggests to Susanna’s distraught parents that she be sent away for “rest” and “rehabilitation” (the fact that Crumble is played by the always invidious Kurtwood Smith sets him up as the villain straight-up). Once at Claymoore, Susanna makes the acquaintance of various stock loony-bin characters, slightly torqued to resemble teenaged girls. There’s the incessant liar Georgina (Clea Duvall, a punky girl misfit in The Faculty); incest victim Daisy (Brittany Murphy, Alicia Silverstone’s “project” in Clueless); terminally fearful Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who seems to have tried to burn her own face off.

And then there’s Lisa (Jolie), the requisite wild child and Claymoore veteran, repeatedly escaping and being hauled back in, so that she might be doped up and duly scolded for her misconduct. Lisa is gorgeous, passionate, and energetic, especially compared to the scared-into-obedience girls, who have no obvious capacity for the courage and intimacy with which Lisa seems so generous.

It’s unfortunate but no surprise that the film is setting you up here, making Lisa seductive so that we might follow along with Susanna’s rather simplistic initial decision to follow her and resist the doctors (who are so bland and clueless, as played by Jeffrey Tambor and Redgrave, that there’s no real decision to be made). Which, in turn, means that the lesson to be learned, that this initial decision is wrong, that the undomesticated, rule-breaking girl is emphatically NOT the correct role model, is too easily delivered, that is, with a contrived scene that suddenly displays her cruelty and sociopathology.

How much harder could it have been to have complicated the questions and resolutions here? All the girl performers — including Ryder and Jolie, who pass well enough as teenagers — are generally more nuanced than their dialogue or situations would seem to allow. But no matter: the film is intent on showcasing its stereotypes, from the gently wise doctor to the nurturing black woman to the protagonist with a notebook. Susanna’s desires to become a writer, disparaged by her mostly unseen and wholly ignorant parents, are encouraged by the wise Nurse Valerie and eventually realized (hence, the film/book, or so we are led to believe: hysteria gives way to poetry, or something).

All this is not to say that Girl, Interrupted doesn’t offer moments that look complex. These take place mostly when the girls take off, metaphorically, within the hospital. Some nights, they engage in apparently ritual gatherings, stealing away into the hospital basement to play with an abandoned bowling game, or into one of the doctors’ offices in order to go through their own files. At this point, we see clearly the arrogance and wrongheadedness of the process of medicalization, as the girls read out to each other the reasons for their incarceration. Most of these have to do with upsetting the middle class status quo, for instance, lesbianism or promiscuity. It’s worth noting that for this minute, the movie does seem to realize its most acute insight, that making girls (or anyone else) conform to white masculine ideals is always a bad idea. More to the point, this insight underlines that it’s also a bad idea to make movies fit into marketable formulas. It’s sad.

The saddest aspect, however, is this: by the time Susanna has survived and profited from her 18 months “inside,” and is headed home (laughably, in the same cab, with the same driver, as when she left), you’re not feeling that she’s going on to a better or improved life, but that she’s going on to be regulated and refined. No longer feeling interrupted, she’s on her way to fitting in.

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