The "Wizard of Oz" maxim, "You've always had the ability to go back to Kansas," is borrowed without subtlety in "Girl, Interrupted." Like Dorothy before her, the 17-year-old Susanna (Winona Ryder) holds the symbolic key to her release from a mental institution, where she's been detained after trying to cure a headache (and a case of postgraduation malaise) with 50 aspirin and a bottle of vodka. But instead of clicking her shoes together and booking a return passage to the Midwest, the normally sensible girl becomes intertwined in the passions and acting-out of some young women who are certifiably disturbed.
Oz this isn't, and "Girl, Interrupted" touches on a few of the late-1960s social issues raised by Susanna Kaysen in her memoir of the same name. Why is Susanna labeled "promiscuous" after only two sexual relationships? Would that standard have been applied to a young man of her era? What makes her reject her proscribed social route -- first college, then an MRS degree -- for an extended dropping-out period and vague notions of a writing career? And how did the psychiatric professionals of the time sleep at night after diagnosing directionless young people as sufferers of "borderline personality disorder"?
But as it's been adapted for the screen by director James Mangold ("Copland") and co-writers Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, the drama largely eschews those concerns to focus on the tangled personal dynamic between the patients and staff of Claymoore Hospital -- a fictionalized version of Massachusetts' McLean, the facility that once played host to Sylvia Plath, James Taylor and Ray Charles.
Susanna's new peer group includes her roommate, Georgina (Clea Duvall), who's obsessed with L. Frank Baum's Oz books; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a fragile daddy's girl hooked on laxatives and unwilling to eat anything except roast chicken from her father's deli; and sweet Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who's been disfigured by a fire she started herself. Head nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) is loving, dignified and tough, but top shrinks Dr. Potts and Dr. Wick (Jeffrey Tambor and Vanessa Redgrave) appear blind to the difference between growing pains and mental illness.
A dormitory drama isn't much fun without a bad girl, and Angelina Jolie (The Bone Collector, Pushing Tin) is electric as Lisa, a long-term resident who lives to be the ward's center of attention. Her pouting lips are always ready to lace any kindness with a cruel edge and spout the right words to make the other girls cry.
Still, it's Susanna's story, and Ryder's subdued intensity doesn't allow us to fully empathize with her character's crippling ennui. Just as an extended case of angst isn't exactly schizophrenia, her not-quite-there performance -- in a film that's essentially a Lifetime-network sorority sister to the infinitely more moving "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- is nothing to go crazy over, either.