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If you’re going to ask an audience to accompany your lead character down a disorienting spiral of memory lapses, paranoid episodes, manic mood swings, hallucinations and debilitating fatigue, it’s generally a good idea to make them care about her first. Irish filmmaker Gerard Barrett somehow neglects that step in the wearisome Brain on Fire. That means we watch Chloe Grace Moretz’s epic meltdown from a bored distance, until the drama remembers its lost calling as a disease-of-the-week movie. At that point, we receive the abrupt news of a cure with an indifferent shrug.
Barrett (Glassland) adapted the screenplay from the memoir by American journalist Susannah Cahalan, and there’s a lot of raw meat here for an actor to chew on, which might explain why producer Charlize Theron optioned the book. It chronicles Cahalan’s harrowing experiences with a mystery illness that stumped doctors until it was correctly diagnosed as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, an immune deficiency that causes the body to attack the catatonic brain.
At least that’s how Moretz’s Susannah explains it in a voiceover that ushers in the story’s happy resolution, with a lurching suddenness that seems to come out of nowhere.
The lack of fluidity is partly caused by Barrett operating for much of the movie under the misapprehension that he’s remaking Safe, Todd Haynes’ dark portrait of sanity in inexorable retreat. That film had a creepy power to crawl under the skin and stay there with all its ambiguities still percolating. But despite Barrett’s careful attention to creating an unsettling mood of existential horror by loading the soundtrack with ambient dread, and his depiction of New York as a breeding ground for overstimulated instability, Brain on Fire just sits there, inert and uninvolving.
At 21, Susannah is happy in what, with just a hint of irony, she calls her “dream job.” She’s a cub reporter at the New York Post, writing exposés on illegal Russian butt implants. Her boyfriend Stephen (Thomas Mann) is an aspiring musician who describes his sound as The Smiths-meets-Tom Waits (in your dreams, dude), while Susannah’s deadpanning work chum Margo (Jenny Slate) calls him “that budget version of Joey Ramone.” Susannah’s editor, brusque but encouraging Richard (Tyler Perry), thinks she’s ready to tackle bigger stories.
But suddenly, she starts zoning out at random moments, suffering from headaches, missing deadlines and meetings, and imagining things that nobody else can see or hear, like bedbug bites or leaky faucets. Following a seizure, Stephen takes her to the hospital, where the doctors’ guesswork about stress, lack of sleep and excessive partying doesn’t quite explain her lapses into a vacant-eyed trance state. Nor do the misdiagnoses of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia later on.
No longer able to function in the office or at home alone, Susannah goes to stay with her divorced mother Rhona (Carrie-Anne Moss), bouncing between high highs and low lows while taking meds that don’t seem to help. One of the weaknesses of the movie is that Rhona, Susannah’s banker father Tom (Richard Armitage) and Stephen all lack definition as characters, so they just hover uninterestingly on the sidelines as Susannah goes from screaming anxiety to unhinged euphoria while being shuffled from one doctor to the next. Perry and Slate give their characters more substance and personality, but they disappear for much of the movie.
As Susannah’s condition worsens and continues to flummox medics, the film just gets stuck in a repetitive pattern that drains rather than builds tension, a problem inherent in both the writing and editing. There should be some emotional investment in the family’s reluctance to send her to a psych hospital, as well as a flood of relief when a doctor finally identifies the problem. But the family connections are so mechanically drawn that it’s dramatically ineffectual and emotionally flat.
The film’s chief selling point is a pinball-ricochet performance from Moretz that hits all the marks and yet is never wholly convincing — she’s more morose than vulnerable, more sullen than terrified. Moretz brought such memorable intensity and preternatural poise to teen roles in movies like Kick-Ass, Let Me In and Hugo; if this project was intended to test her ability to carry a dramatic movie solo as an adult, it’s a miss.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: Broad Green Pictures, Foundation Features, Denver and Delilah Films
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Thomas Mann, Richard Armitage, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tyler Perry, Jenny Slate
Director-screenwriter: Gerard Barrett, based on the memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
Producers: Rob Merilees, Lindsay Macadam, Charlize Theron, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono
Executive producers: Lisa Wolofsky, Daniel Hammond
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Ross Dempster
Costume designer: Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh
Music: John Paesano
Editor: J.C. Bond
Casting director: Maureen Webb
Sales: Mister Smith, WME
Not rated, 89 minutes
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