Susanna (Ryder), a 60's sensitive type who commits herself to a mental institution after she takes a bottle of aspirin to cure a headache. We are then introduced to the inmates who will quickly form her clique: Daisy (Murphy), an anorexic daddy's girl; Polly, whose horrifically scarred face masks her innate sensitivity; and Lisa (Jolie), a free-spirited sociopath who has turned asylum escapes into an artform.
Populated with sexy stars and a tastefully furnished madhouse, Girl, Interrupted may well do for asylums what Top Gun did for the Navy. Coming on like Charlie's Angels Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, James Mangold's intelligent, engaging adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's real-life memoir offers a fresh spin on movie asylum cliches thanks to a spirited cast and a refreshing resistance toward heartstring pulling and obvious preaching. The girls bond (though never in a sickly way), and have "adventures" (midnight bowling, sneaking a peek at their psychiatric reports); yet this is never as cute as you might think, Mangold always injecting the proceedings with a slight, distinctly anti-Tinseltown edge.
The film has little new to say about the divide between rationality and lunacy, but it presents its argument with humour and persuasion. Mangold never overplays the emotional beats, having enough restraint to string together vignettes of life on the ward, and be it Susanna turning the tables on her therapist or an outing to an ice cream parlour, Girl, Interrupted gives you the time to care for the characters.
Jolie is on fire as the wild child who knows exactly how to push everyone else's buttons while staying firmly in control of her own. Yet in many ways it is Ryder's movie, etching a journey from confusion to clarity that is both believable and moving.
If the film has drawbacks, it is that it occasionally stretches belief and it resolves itself too neatly, betraying the rawness that has gone before. Yet ultimately it gets by on the strength of its double-handed performance whammy.