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GIRL INTERRUPTED

by: Michael Dequina

The title of Girl, Interrupted bears a singular subject, but audiences will likely walk out of James Mangold's adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's memoir thinking of two "girls"--Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, who further cement their reputations as two of the most gifted young screen actresses today. It's unfortunate, however, that the script often isn't as strong as they are. But what is fortunate is that their performances more than compensate for the shortcomings in the writing department.

Ryder plays the "girl" of the title, Susanna, who in the 1960s is sent to the Claymoore mental hospital after pressure from her parents and a therapist. Though she was hospitalized for chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka, Susanna is more depressed and unmotivated than truly mentally ill--a statement which doesn't necessarily hold true for her peers at Claymoore. Her roommate is Georgina (Clea Duvall), a pathological liar; she also spends time with self-inflicted burn victim Polly (Elisabeth Moss) and laxative junkie Daisy (Brittany Murphy).

Susanna ends up bonding most strongly with the most volatile patient, Lisa (Jolie), whom we first meet being dragged back into the ward after an escape attempt. Dangerous, carefree, and intensely charismatic, Lisa cannot help but captivate Susanna's attention--and that of the audience. It's a role perfectly suited for Best Supporting Actress Oscar aspirations, and Jolie (who has already garnered a Golden Globe nod and the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Supporting Actress prize) runs with the opportunity. There's more to her performance than the expected fits and teary breakdowns; she is able to make Lisa into a multidimensional person, with real humanity behind the histrionics. She will undoubtedly be competing for the golden statuette in March.

By comparison, more likely to be overlooked is Ryder's performance, which is very much Jolie's equal. Susanna is basically the calm audience surrogate in the middle of the storm, but the fact that she remains a strong presence amid the flashier turns is a tribute to the effectiveness of Ryder's measured, no-frills work. Despite the many spotlight-stealing moments afforded to Lisa, Girl, Interrupted is Susanna's story of growth, and one is able to see her progression through Ryder's nuanced performance.

Less subtle, however, is the script by Mangold, Lisa Loomer, and Anna Hamilton Phelan. I think the honest portrait of these troubled young women makes engrossing enough viewing, but the writers have decided to manufacture blatantly "movie" situations for dramatic purposes. It's an understandable decision, but the mechanics behind such contrived scenes as an angry, tear-stained climactic confrontation between Susanna and Lisa are a bit too obvious and distracting to be completely believable.

Yet one does buy into such scenes to a certain degree, again thanks to the work of the cast and the overall power of the story. Girl, Interrupted is ultimately a film, underrealized; but its desired emotional effect is more than adequately achieved.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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