The American film going audience has had a certain fascination with mental illness for a long time. From the 1957 classic ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ featuring a stellar performance of Joanne Woodward, through ‘Sybil’ and more recently ‘Girl, Interrupted’ young women with metal problems has made for some excellent films. With this in mind this particular sub-genre has a very high water mark for excellence. The latest entry in this pack is ‘Prozac Nation’. Although not a bad film it does fall somewhat short of its illustrious predecessors. Based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author looks at her own experiences to tell the story of a young woman beset with emotional issues. This in it self is part of the foundation set by the previously mentioned films, they also where based on real experiences.
Here Ms Wurtzel is played by Christina Ricci. As an undergraduate of the Ivy League Harvard one may think that Elizabeth had the world in her hand. Young, attractive and talented she could look forward to a bright and successful future but she could find little joy in her life. Even getting a scholarship to Harvard and having her writings published in the Mecca of young authors, The Rolling Stone, Lizzie finds her life falling apart. She is frequently depressed, afraid that everyone she cares about will reject her and somewhat obsessed with rock performer Lou Reed, her life is an uphill battle. Even the people she turns to for help only seem to make matters worse. Her roommate Ruby (Michelle Williams) tries to be sympathetic but Lizzie only sees her own life even worse by comparison. Her first romantic foray was with Noah (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) only serves to introduce Lizzie not only to sex but to drug use, something especially unwise for one on such an emotional precipice. Her talent for writing becomes frenzied binges during her more manic phases. On the home front Lizzie has to deal with her chain smoking neuroses filled mother, Sara (Jessica Lange). Eventually, Lizzie seeks professional help only to encounter an ice queen therapist Dr. Sterling (Anne Heche). Finally, Lizzie is proscribed the miracle drug of the eighties, Prozac.
Having a daughter myself that has recently gone through those tumultuous teen years it is safe to say that during those years most girls will exhibit some of the symptoms of clinical depression. Still, few have the extremes in mood swings poor Lizzie shows. There is something of an indictment in this film on the way pharmaceuticals such as Prozac are used to even out mood swings like this, albeit ones that are drastic and interfere with normal happiness. What we see here is a young woman cut off from the traditional means to help people over such problems, family, friends and even professions. The lack of respect Lizzie’s mother displays towards her daughter is passed on. Lizzie’s condition is made much worse but the lack of respect she is able to afford herself. This leads her to lose her only means of keeping her sanity, her writing. As she spirals into increasingly self destructive behavior it appears that she can only watch with detachment. This detachment then extends to those around her completely isolating her from reality.
When a performer is tagged with phrases such as ‘uneven career’ it often means that they are willing to take risks other actors are unwilling to take. I firmly believe that this is the case for Christina Ricci. After a notable career as a child actor she exited her teens as the new Queen of the Indies, taking roles large and small in some little gems. Lately her career has been hit with some failures but there have been moments that displayed her talent such as her performance in Monster. Here, is nearly perfect for the role of Lizzie. With her tiny frame and huge eyes Ricci is able to connect with the audience on an emotional level. The difficult task of make us watching care about a basically unsympathetic character demonstrates the abilities Ricci posses. She plays Lizzie as a girl that knows few shades of gray, every aspect of her life are brilliant whites and dismally dark blacks. She is not afraid to let the audience side with her friends, watching the self destruction, wanting to help but not knowing how.
While this is basically a one woman show there are some fine actors taking up the ancillary roles. Michelle Williams is over looked by many mostly due to her rise to fame in television’s Dawson’s Creek. She displays exceptional empathy in her role as Ruby, Lizzie’s roommate. Jason Biggs is also an actor that is type cast by the public due to his infamous scene with an apple pie. Here, he does show that he can act. Unfortunately, while their characters start out strongly they are mitigated to background as the film progresses. While many find fault with this it did seem to symbolize how Lizzie’s relationships progressed, intense at first then sinking away due to her illness.
Jessica Lange portrays the mother in an over the top fashion, something like a female Gary Oldman but without the practiced control. In viewing her performance I had to remind myself that this character is presented through the eyes of the daughter showing the typical demonization many girls attribute to their mothers. Considering her real life there is a little touch of irony in having Anne Heche plays the psychiatrist. The icy façade is presented as a clinical choice on the part of Dr. Sterling, staying apart from her patient in order to help her pull out the most difficult memories and experiences.
Director Erik Skjoldbjćrg seems to have a thing for altered emotional states. His previous film, the original Insomnia, dealt with the effects of altered circadian rhythms in the north and the resultant affects of sleep depravation. Here, he delves into depression and mania. What he does lack here is the ability to get into the mind of a young woman. His pacing is uneven leaving the audience somewhat at a loss. He does personalize the story with the use of the time honored technique of the voice over. It does make exposition easier to follow and brings Ricci’s character more real. Skjoldbjćrg juxtaposes irrelevant footage with the action of the story in a non sequitor fashion, such as views of Challenger space shuttle tragedy inter cut with the mother being mugged. His camera work is fit more for an art house film and doesn’t fit quite so well here.
This film was originally made in 2001 and presented in the Cannes Film Festival to less than a welcomed reception. It stayed on the shelf for a couple of years before general release, rarely a good sign. The DVD presentation is well done but this film is not really for a large audience. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video was clear, even in the darkest scenes. The color palette was on the subdued side by acceptable. The Dolby 5.1 audio provided a reasonable sound field although the rear speakers where used mostly to disorient. In all this is a film that does not measure up to the films mentioned at the beginning of this review but for die hard Ricci fans it is worth the viewing.