This adolescent female version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest is a bit of a grim ordeal, although, ultimately, it is uplifting.
Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is a victim of the '60's, a time
when America was undergoing its own identity crisis. Vietnam, sex,
drugs, rock 'n' roll, youth rebellion were all helping to shape a new
generation, largely misunderstood and misjudged by parents and
authority figures. This was a time when women were also seeking out a
more significant role for themselves beyond merely becoming dutiful
wives and mothers.
Because Susanna had no real idea of what she wanted to do with
her future, apart from some vague notion of becoming a writer, her
concerned parents sent her to a psychiatrist. She diagnosed with a
Borderline Personality Disorder, a vague clinical analysis that could
apply to almost any troubled teenager at that time, and sent to
Claymoore, a local sanatorium, for a couple of years. There she met a
number of other young women with various mental disorders, against
which she tries to judge her own problems.
For nearly two years Susanna tries not to succumb to her grim
environment and the general air of despair and hopelessness that
pervades the hospital. Throughout the film Susanna is depicted as a
sort of latter day Dorothy trapped in her own bizarre Oz but trying to
find her way home, and the film draws some obvious parallels. The
inmate who has the biggest impact on her though is Lisa (Angelina
Jolie, from The Bone Collector, etc), the self destructive but somehow
charming and persuasive sociopath who is constantly escaping from
Claymoore. Fittingly, Jolie dominates the film with a combustible,
volatile and dynamic performance.
Ryder delivers a solid, but introspective and soulful
performance as the bewildered, passive Susanna, who finds a sort of
sanity in her writing. For Ryder, this film has been something of a
labour of love, and has some personal resonances for her. For the
past six years, she has nurtured the project, and has been largely
instrumental in helping to bring Susanna's inspiring story to the
Writer/director James Mangold (Heavy, Copland) is a dab hand
at character driven dramas, and he does a fine job of adapting
Kaysen's rather episodic book for the screen. He eschews any sense of
saccharine sentimentality, giving this roller coaster ride a hard edge
that occasionally makes for harrowing viewing. He has assembled a
solid ensemble supporting cast to help bring these disturbed but
fascinating characters to life.
Brittany Murphy plays the pampered, tragic Daisy, while
Elisabeth Moss brings a poignant quality to her role as burns victim
Polly, whose spirit remains unscarred. Vanessa Redgrave has a small
role as Dr Wick, the understanding head psychiatrist, while Whoopi
Goldberg delivers one of her more earnest and less irritating
performances as Valerie, the understanding, compassionate nurse.
Copyright © 2000 Greg King