"TITICUT FOLLIES" it ain't.
"Girl, Interrupted," the sensitive, well-acted film based on Susanna Kaysen's 1993 memoir about her youthful sojourn in a mental asylum in the late '60s, paints the psychiatric ward as, in some respects, more like the average college dormitory than the hellhole depicted in Fred Wiseman's notorious 1967 documentary about a Massachusetts sanatorium.
One resident has an eating disorder, another is a pathological liar. One sits in front of the TV all day and yet another hoards care packages of roasted chicken from her father's deli under her bed. There's surreptitious sex with visiting boyfriends and a token lesbian on the hall. Contraband Valium is regularly bartered for other controlled substances.
(Okay, so maybe it's only like my college dormitory.)
Not to be flip, but Claymoore, the exclusive Massachusetts hospital in which most of the action of "Girl, Interrupted" is set, is not the drooling bedlam portrayed in fictional features like "The Snake Pit" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," either. No one there has delusions of being Christ or Cleopatra. No one picks invisible flies out of the air and eats them. The straitjacket gets pulled out only once, and there's virtually no one seen rocking back and forth in a puddle of her own waste.
But, then again, the families of the people at Claymoore obviously have money and, in some cases, the patients seem to be there merely because it was inconvenient to their appearance-conscious relatives to have them wandering around spoiling the decor of the real world. Furthermore, "Girl" doesn't want to be that kind of expose anyway. The hospital administrators are, by and large, humane and sympathetic (especially Whoopi Goldberg as the stoic nurse Valerie) and you get the feeling that the inmates, like recalcitrant coeds, will all most likely be cured and graduate within a few years.
The reason the hero Susanna (based on Kaysen and played powerfully by Winona Ryder) has checked herself in to Claymoore is because, in her words, she's "sad." Okay, she also experiences "time jumps" (flashbacks in movie parlance), the bones in her hands sometimes feel like they're not there and she did try to cure a wicked headache with a bottle of aspirin and a fifth of vodka but, basically, she's hoping to catch up on some much-needed rest and be out in a couple of weeks.
Little does she know that, once checked in, it isn't so easy to check out, especially with an official diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (whose symptoms, oddly enough, are never explained). A couple of weeks turns into a year (condensed from Kaysen's actual stay of nearly two years), during which time Susanna gets the kind of valuable life lessons that can only be provided by the School of Hard Knocks.
Her tutorial in that department comes courtesy of fellow patient Lisa (Angelina Jolie), an antisocial hellion who for years has been escaping from and being forcibly brought back to the Claymoore campus, where her insider's knowledge of the asylum's behind-the-scenes workings and her penchant for speaking the unvarnished truth to power at first endear her to, but ultimately estrange her from, Susanna. That their volatile friendship culminates in a dramatic confrontation with unhappy consequences is only ever so slightly predictable, but it's more than mitigated by the believable performances of Ryder and Jolie as two lost souls and by the strong underplaying of the talented supporting ensemble.
"Girl, Interrupted" is set in a psychiatric hospital, but the therapeutic relationships (with compassionate if occasionally clueless staff doctors played by Jeffrey Tambor and Vanessa Redgrave) are not the relationships that get the spotlight. Through Susanna's association with Lisa, they both discover that the power to heal (or for that matter hurt) oneself lies not in a bottle or on the leather couch but someplace a lot closer to home.
Toward the end of the film, a clip of "The Wizard of Oz" plays on a TV in the background. It's really for our benefit, but when Glinda the Good looks at Dorothy and tells her that getting out of Oz was never as hard as it seemed, she could easily be talking to Susanna.
GIRL, INTERRUPTED (R, 128 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, a sexual situation and self-destructive behavior. Area theaters.