”Borderline personality disorder”is one of those phrases that says more about the people who invented it than it does about the patients it’s supposed to describe. When Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), the 18-year-old heroine of ”Girl, Interrupted,” enters Claymoore hospital, a psychiatric facility outside Boston, she is diagnosed with the syndrome — but, in fact, all she’s done is made a hapless suicide attempt and acted slack and mopey and lost in her somber daydreams. Her personality isn’t borderline; it’s self-pitying and indulgent.
Fortunately, the film understands this. Set in 1967, and adapted from Kaysen’s memoir of her two-year experience as an adolescent in the throes of a middle-class crack-up, ”Girl, Interrupted” is shrewd, tough, and lively — a junior-league ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that never makes the mistake of portraying its protagonist as a victim-naïf. She’s more like the original poster child for Prozac Nation: a girl who’d rather interrupt her own life, even if it means going a little cuckoo, than grow up.
Susanna is thrown in with a turbulent gallery of disturbed young women. They range from a girl who tried to burn her own face off to one who won’t eat anything but chicken from her father’s deli (she stores the carcasses under the bed). Most of the patients are harmless, but Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a heartless, charismatic sociopath, delights in her destructive power. Jolie brings the kind of combustible sexuality to the screen that our movies, in the age of Meg Ryan, have been missing for too long.
As Susanna and Lisa become comrades, then enemies, they’re like ”Cuckoo’s Nest’s”R.P. McMurphy split in two. Susanna, her misery sunk deep down, is a space cadet fighting a secret war with herself, and through Lisa she plays out that war. The film allows Ryder to trace Susanna’s gradual emergence from her “borderline” state as she confronts the cruel truth of mental illness. Directed with satisfying authority by James Mangold, ”Girl, Interrupted” is really about the thorny neurotic underside of a contemporary young woman’s struggle to leave girlhood behind. By the end, you feel that Ryder, at long last, has done that as an actress.