GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999): A Gap Year at the Psych Ward

As of May 2022, GIRL, INTERRUPTED is streaming on NETFLIX and PlutoTV.

Upon first look, GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) appears to be the sister film of the critically acclaimed ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). The way Lisa (Angelina Jolie) enters the ward, kicking and screaming, marks her as GIRL, INTERRUPTED’s McMurphy and the force that will upturn the institution as it stands. Despite their marked similarities, GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) is unique in its emphasis on self-diagnosing mental illness and moving forward.

Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999).

Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) has been institutionalized per the recommendation of her parents. Despite not playing significant roles in the film, Mr. and Mrs. Kaysen prove to be an unnecessary burden on Susanna’s mental state. The beginning of the film cuts between Susanna’s past and present. Each look into her past depicts her parents disapproving the way she holds herself – particularly how her appearance and antisocial attitude ruin their social status. In Susanna’s psychological consultation, Mrs. Kaysen tells a sob story, taking away the attention from her daughter, who overdosed on alcohol and aspirin not too long before. Despite insisting that she check into the psych ward, Mr. and Mrs. Kaysen demand that she is released by Christmas. They fear that her lack of attendance at their neighborhood Christmas party will make her the talk of the town. Her parents’ narcissism is a driving force, as Susanna goes down a self-destructive path of “promiscuity” and unstable decision making.

Coming from a family that prioritizes “keeping up with the Jones‘” over everything, it is understandable that Suzanna feels worthless and out of place. At Claymoore, the psychiatric ward, she finds a community among a schizophrenic, a girl with OCD, a pathological liar, and Lisa, the sociopath. She identifies with their flaws and occasionally erratic behaviors. Susanna idolizes Lisa, who convinces her to hold out on her therapist and refuse her prescribed medications. An hour into the film, Claymoore starts to feel like a teen sleepover or an all girl summer camp, rather than the lobotomy giving institution that it is.

Angelina Jolie and Whoopi Goldberg

Despite gaining a new attitude, Susanna’s mental health declines as she begins to experience violent outbursts and becomes more reactive. Her found family inhibits her from recognizing – in the words of Nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) – that she is “a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy” in a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. Susanna believes that because she is institutionalized, something must be wrong with her. She convinces herself that she is unfixable and must accept the defect that she’s been burdened with. So instead of bettering herself through the facility, Susanna treats the ward as a prison, a place to kill time. She is enamored with the reckless team of misfits and uses them as an escape from the outside world. The “outside world” – best represented by her parents – insists that she is deranged and deformed. Within the walls of Claymoore, she finally has people who are willing to stand by her through the good and the bad.

One could argue that ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) delivers a similar message. In both cases, the institution is what holds the various characters back from reaching their full potential. However, GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) shows that Susanna is trapped by herself and Lisa more than she is contained by the walls of the ward. Lisa refers to herself as a lifer, trapped in a vicious cycle of running away, getting arrested, and returning to Claymoore. Susanna fails to realize that Lisa’s life is perpetually on hold, due to her inability to reign in her sociopathic tendencies. Lisa is trapped, but Susanna isn’t…yet.

Jack Nicholson in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST(1975).

Yes, there is no water fountain launched through the barred windows of the asylum. There is no prolonged cut scene of a revitalized man running into the hills to the sound of a Native American flute. Instead, GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) offers a narrative that struggles through self-discovery and the dynamics of female friendship. As someone who is a fan of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), I expected a female spin-off of an already existing film. Therefore, I was surprised to take away different things from each film. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) taught me to look beyond the “Combine.” I realized the lack of critical thinking that goes into much of society’s rules and standards. After all, critical thinking would allow for a greater acceptance toward diversity on all fronts, something that much of society struggles with to this day.

While GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) also encourages you to challenge societal expectations, there was a greater focus on self help and savoring your emotions. Grief and anger are painful to stomach. Susanna goes from a sedated, emotionless teen, to a young woman who has outbursts and breaks down. She realizes that she is not deranged for making mistakes or acting out once in a while. Being admitted to the psych ward was an act of over-correction that taught her to feel again. Prior to Claymoore, Susanna had no plans or aspirations and felt stuck in place. Being in Claymoore, a place where time actually stood still, motivated her to move on to the next stage in life. Some graduates take gap years or study abroad. Susanna Kaysen’s time in a psychiatric ward becomes a formative period in her life, despite being lined with fear and trauma.

Kanani Sato has served as an Outreach Intern and Social Media Coordinator at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival since 2021. Her interest in film stems from her love for costume and set design in movies and television. She is a strong advocate for diversity in media and strives to project Asian American and Pacific Islander voices in Hollywood.

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