Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Words by Poppy Hunt
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Twenty-one years after its initial release, we delve into James Mangold’s critically acclaimed ‘Girl, Interrupted’ starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie to explore themes of mental illness, isolation and understanding.
Over the years, I’ve had the film ‘Girl, Interrupted’ recommended to me multiple times. It was only recently that I took those recommendations to heart and sat down to watch. I remember seeing screen grabs of a particular scene on my Twitter timeline, in which Susanna (Winona Ryder) questions her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder: “borderline between what, and what?” It seemed to resonate with people in a way that I didn’t quite understand until seeing the scene play out in front of me.
Susanna is an eighteen year-old high school student who is sent to Claymoore, a psychiatric hospital, after an attempt on her life (she washes down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka). In an inner monologue, Susanna says “maybe I was really crazy, maybe it was the 60s or just a girl, interrupted”, which sets us in the 60s and outlines Susanna’s uncertainty around the way that she feels, and the possible reasons why. The 60s backdrop places us at a point in time where mental illness was largely misunderstood by society, especially in women. Once at the institution, she meets Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a sociopathic teenager who was admitted to the hospital eight years ago, just as she is being escorted back in, following an attempted escape. We learn that this is a common occurrence for Lisa, one of the reasons that she has been hospitalised for so long. With the help of Lisa, Susanna befriends Polly (Elisabeth Moss), a schizophrenic who set herself on fire, Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a sexual abuse victim who suffers with an eating disorder, and Georgina (Clea DuVall), a pathological liar with whom Susanna shares a room. One night, they break into their psychiatrist’s office to look through their files and find out their diagnoses. Susanna feels a sense of belonging within a friendship group that she hadn’t felt before, and she begins to depend on Claymoore to maintain the bond.
Susanna’s friendship with Lisa progresses, and over time Lisa convinces Susanna to stop taking her medication, thus halting her progress to recovery. Lisa forms a hold over Susanna, indulging in her own callous and manipulative fantasies. This peaks when she convinces Susanna to run away from Claymoore, stopping along at recently released Daisy’s house before making their way to Florida. Susanna finally sees through Lisa’s manipulation when she finds that Daisy has ended her own life after an altercation with Lisa who, when confronted with Daisy’s dead body, feels no remorse. Susanna phones for an ambulance to come for Daisy, and returns to Claymoore alone, holding onto Daisy’s cat.
After this, Susanna has a new-found positive outlook on life and begins to engage in her treatment. She accepts her diagnosis and opens up to her psychologist Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave). She occupies herself with painting and writing, which we discover is what she plans on pursuing after being released from Claymoore. As Susanna prepares to leave the institution, Lisa is caught and brought back. Lisa steals Susanna’s diary in a rage and attacks Susanna, exposing her innermost thoughts through recovery to Polly and Georgina in a nightmarish scene in the tunnels of Claymoore. Susanna confronts Lisa with her dependency on being a patient at the hospital, and Lisa breaks down, confronted with her reality – something the others have always been too afraid to enforce on her. The next day, just as Susanna is about to leave Claymoore for the final time, she visits Lisa who is strapped to a bed. She paints Lisa’s nails, and Lisa insists she’s not “heartless”. Susanna’s reconciliation with Lisa is something I consider her strongest point; she is recovered and well enough to be able to see through the spell that Lisa once cast her under, but it takes a lot of personal strength to be able to forgive someone who has acted so awfully towards her. At the end of the film, in the taxi on the way home, Susanna is driven by the same person who delivered her to Claymoore, eighteen months earlier, symbolic of life coming full circle.
‘Girl, Interrupted’ is a film that explores both sides of mental illness; the good and the bad. The relatable character of Susanna allows the viewer to aptly put themselves in her shoes, fully immersing themselves into life at Claymoore, getting to know the other characters and finding out more about Susanna’s condition in real-time as she does herself. Though the film starts out with her not understanding the way she feels, and why she feels the way she does, by the end, Susanna describes herself as a “recovered borderline personality”, owning her diagnosis and proud of her progress. She isn’t ashamed of the fact that she’s just come from Claymoore, and serves as a beautiful reminder that life can get better.