I decided to dig into the DVD collection back at my Mum’s house, and watch the ones I haven’t seen yet. First one up was this 1999 film, for which Angelina Jolie won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, deservedly so. She was easily the best thing in this good but not great movie.
Based on the autobiographical story by Susanna Kaysen, an American author, the film is about her experiences at the Claymoore Hospital in the late 1960s, which she enters after attempting suicide and being diagnosed with a Borderline Personality Disorder. There, she meets and makes friends with some of her fellow disturbed souls, including Polly (Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men fame), a sweet-natured childlike girl who once set her own face on fire; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), who always stays in her room and has a thing for rotisserie chicken; and most notably Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a charming sociopath and a troublemaker who’s established herself as the dominant figure in their group, through her sheer force of personality and a knack for pushing people’s buttons. Susanna goes through the predictable stage of denial, clashing with the figures of authority and going along with Lisa’s rule-breaking, before their antics end in a tragedy which gives Susanna a wake up call. Though it’s never entirely clear whether she actually needed confinement in a psychiatric facility, or whether she was a victim of the times.
To me Winona Ryder is one of those actors with a narrow range who can be really good in a right role with the right direction, and really flat outside of it. Here she’s more on the flat side unfortunately. She’s too cutesy and wide-eyed and her Susanna made me think of a petulant 5-year-old who’s constantly on the verge of stamping her foot and going, nooooo Mummy noooooo I woooon’t waaaaaah; it might have suited her character who is rather immature but lord was it annoying at times, especially when she does go into a full-blown rant. I also didn’t really buy Susanna’s internal turmoil and emotional journey, though that might have been the fault of the screenplay as well as Ryder’s – it just all felt a tad too thin and by-the-numbers. Susanna doesn’t really do anything – she is messed up, and then she’s not.
What I really liked about the movie was the exploration of the female relationships, the good and the bad of them, the warmth and support and the manipulation and bitchiness. And Angelina Jolie just burns up the screen in this. I’ve often found her a rather colourless and dull actress, despite her incredible beauty, but certainly not here. Her Lisa is pure charisma on legs, seductive and amoral, both ghostly and vibrantly alive. The climatic confrontation scene between Lisa and Susanna felt a bit jarring, like it was forcing the movie into a thriller mode a la Single White Female, but even then Jolie’s acting is powerful enough to pull through.
Some of the interior design was really nice – the inside of the apartment of one of the girls was like 60s on steroids and I was just drinking it in even while intense drama was happening. And at the very least the movie did make me interested in reading the original book.