It’s 1999 and Winona Ryder is at the height of her success. At the tender age of twenty-eight, she’s been nominated for two Oscars, has worked with Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, and Woody Allen, has covered nearly every major magazine in the world, and has practically redefined the meaning of femininity for a generation. She has every reason to be elated, on top of the world — she’s proven that it’s her oyster, after all, and she’s achieved a kind of fame young, ambitious upstarts can only dream of.
But, sitting down for an interview with Diane Sawyer to promote Girl, Interrupted, Ryder reveals that you can have it all and still feel inexplicably empty at the end of the day. At her peak, as the rest of the world fawned over her and frequently touted her as the next big thing, she felt hopelessly alone, suffering from overpowering anxiety and depression.
In the exchange, Ryder recounts a typical night in 1991 during which she was overtaken by insomnia, driving around aimlessly through the streets of L.A. in order to feel something. “I saw an outdoor magazine stand and I saw myself on the myself on the cover of Rolling Stone, and it said something like ‘Winona Ryder is the luckiest girl in the world.’ And it broke my heart,” she admits candidly. “Because there I was, in so much pain, feeling so confused and feeling so lost. I wasn’t allowed to complain because I was so lucky. I wished so badly that I had someone to talk to.”
Sardonically self-aware, she readily acknowledges her stature and sees the situation from the standpoint of an outsider looking in. “I’m as nauseated as the next person when actors complain about their lives,” she assures. “But the stuff that I was going through was difficult.”
So while the interview itself seems to be laced in a sort of bizarre irony — instead of ringing with a buzz of recovery (Ryder was infamously involved in a tabloid fondling shoplifting scandal just two years later), it radiates with the unsettling calm before a storm — it unintentionally parallels Girl, Interrupted itself, a film that circles around a young woman so overwhelmed by her disaffection and her alienation that she ends up nearly driving herself crazy over her inability to find solace somewhere in this cruel, ruthless world.
Adapted from Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir of the same name, the film was a major passion project for Ryder — it took her nearly seven years to get production started. But the material resonated with her tremendously, and because nothing’s better incentive to remain patient than thinking about potential emotional impact on audiences, the near decade it took to get Girl, Interrupted into theaters was well worth it for the actress.
Whether the cinematic adaptation is on par with its “funny, insightful” source is debatable. But unquestionable is the intensity it emits — it’s an entertaining, emotionally heady drama better to be simplistically savored than intricately analyzed. Its heavy questions unmatched by its feeble answers, the film oftentimes feels like The Snake Pit’s plainer cousin, all bold headlines without the follow-up articles. And yet we’re drawn to Girl, Interrupted, for its authentic psychological pains and certainly for the brilliance of Ryder and the then rising Angelina Jolie (who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance).
Taking place in 1967, the film follows the Ryder portrayed Kaysen as she’s checking into a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. Eighteen and uncertain where exactly she wants to go in life — she knows that she wants to write but isn’t willing to go to college to improve herself — the journey to recovery’s going to be a long one. What’s supposed to be a brief stay spirals into a year-and-a-half’s worth of recuperation. She’s diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder, but one of the ward’s nurses (Whoopi Goldberg) isn’t so convinced. “You are a lazy, self-indulgent, little girl who is making herself crazy,” she deadpans at one point during the film.
So maybe Kaysen’s not losing her mind. But in a conservative world where being sensitive and speaking your mind and pushing against the status quo is supremely risky — you’d be wiser to put aspiration off for housewife drudgery — she might as well be. Through her interactions with those with her in the ward, though, Kaysen’s provided with the motivation to attempt to turn her life around, even if nearly two years are taken away from her in the process.
Where Girl, Interrupted flubs about in the creating of a three-dimensional ensemble — everyone who isn’t played by Ryder, Jolie (as a charismatic sociopath), or Brittany Murphy (as a self-harming bulimic attempting to recover from incest) are cutouts with speaking parts — it triumphs in the fleshing out of the trio of aforementioned roles. Ryder is exceptionally nuanced as Kaysen, her faults as prominent as her more enviable attributes. Jolie is a performative gut punch, relentless, manipulative, but unquestionably hypnotic. Murphy is heartbreaking as a tragic victim who desires normalcy but will never be able to find it.
But though its performers are breathtaking, never quite apparent is what Girl, Interrupted wants to be. Does it crave to be a commentary on the cultural confines hanging over the heads of women in the 1960s, a serious statement toward the fight against the stigmatization of mental illness, or an inquisitive quarter-life crisis piece? Hard to tell — screenwriter/director James Mangold, while an ace in stringing together perceptive dialogue, touches upon the in-question topics but never explores them in depth.
Good that Girl, Interrupted is effortlessly diverting, then: without the sharp aim of its ensemble, it’d flounder. It impacts even when it doesn’t, and that illusion of faux meaning is impressively drawn. But one wishes that the movie more clearly advertised what made the source material such an important part of Ryder’s life — condemned by the author herself for the liberties it took with her story, it’s accidental escapist fare never to be compelling. B-