Painful, harrowing and almost impossible to watch – but Netflix’s Brain On Fire is easily one of the most important films of the year.
There’s no getting away from it: Brain On Fire is an extremely difficult film to watch. Uncomfortably raw, it offers a harrowing exploration of mental illness and the complexity of relationships and real human pain. In places, it is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen, because it’s an authentic examination of a horror that could befall any of us, or anyone we love.
And yet, despite that, it’s essential viewing and deserves the widest possible audience.
The film is based on Susannah Cahalan’s autobiography, Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness, which details the author’s diagnosis of an extremely rare autoimmune disease, anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis. This meant that the right side of her brain was severely inflamed, as her body produced chemicals that attacked it.
However, Cahalan’s symptoms were particularly scary. They started with full body aches, tiredness, difficulty concentrating and a sense of displacement and anxiet, before evolving into obsessive thoughts, manic episodes and delusions. It wasn’t long before Calahan was desperately ill – but her illness manifested in ways that hurt the people who loved her, caused her to act out at work and made her reluctant to take the psychiatric medication that had been prescribed for her.
Chloe Grace Moretz plays the role of Susannah with maturity, subtlety and nuance. Admittedly there are parts of the story that are presented in a way that feels a little jarring and clumsy, but it’s difficult to criticise this because it’s based on a real person, and their life. Moretz’ Susannah is perky and privileged. She has an impressive job at the New York post, a charming boyfriend and an adoring, affluent family. Her sweetness and naivety is underscored by Jenny Slate’s Margo, Susannah colleague. Slate’s talent is transcendent, and even though her role is a small one, she’s the best part of every single scene she’s in. I’m a huge fan of her work as a comic actress and I was hugely impressed by the softness and detail of her performance. This is also true of Tyler Perry, another actor best known for his comic work, who plays Richard, Susannah’s editor. He gives a sympathetic and believable portrayal of a frustrated, compassionate boss.
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I think the most powerful part of Brain On Fire is that the most frightening and disturbing aspects of Susannah’s illness were depicted in a way that you rarely see in stories about women struggling with mental health. Susannah’s delusions make her wilful and argumentative. The more fragile she becomes, the less fragile she seems. When she argues with her mother about not taking medication, or screams and smashes plates at dinner with her father and his new partner, we realise how little we know about the way vulnerability manifests itself, and how horribly difficult it is to get the help you desperately need when your illness makes people afraid of you. The story is always told from Susannah’s perspective, but while her pain is, fairly, given the most weight, the pain experienced by her friends and family is palpable. Indeed, one of the most important things this film does is to show how difficult it is to witness the suffering of a loved one: I think that parts of Brain On Fire will be deeply comforting for anyone who is close to someone that struggles with mental illness, as the film vividly depicts how isolating this experience can be.
Another very important part of the film is the way that it explores one of the most complicated aspects of mental illness – diagnosis. Susannah is repeatedly told that her early symptoms are a result of drinking too much, partying too hard, staying too late at work and not getting enough rest. It made me think about the way women are dismissed so frequently when they seek medical attention, and that in the case of many illnesses, it’s easier to explain away our symptoms and link them to behavioural issues, instead of investigating them.
One part of the film that really struck me was the scene in which Susannah’s father comes to her apartment to fix a dripping tap. The plumbing is fine, but her brain is starting to make her hear and see things that aren’t there. Her apartment is covered in dirty dishes, and her father tells her off, frustrated that his daughter is technically an adult, but still not taking good care of herself – and Susannah blames the pressures of work. Neither of them know that this is another early symptom of Susannah’s illness, and it’s effective because it’s presented so subtly. I’ve seen similar scenes in other films about mental illness which dealt with scenarios like these in an unignorably crude way. Brain On Fire is careful not to sensationalise or overdramatise, which means that the most shocking parts have even more impact.
The only criticism I have for Brain On Fire is connected with a criticism that must be made about the general treatment of mental illness. Susannah’s condition is rare, but random – any person could be unlucky enough to suffer from anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis. However, her condition is eventually diagnosed and treated because of the privilege she’s born into. Her boss is sympathetic and keeps her job open, so that she’s allowed to return to work. Her family take care of her. At least one in four of us will experience mental illness, but far, far fewer have the financial options and support network to get the treatment Susannah received.
Calahan’s original memoir, and her work as a journalist, has done a huge amount to raise awareness of mental illness. I’m sure this film will continue to raise that awareness and ensure that more vulnerable people are treated and protected. But we can’t ignore the fact that if Calahan wasn’t a relatively wealthy white woman, we don’t know that she would have received the treatment she needed, let alone been given the space to tell her story. I hope that this aspect of Brain On Fire isn’t ignored, and that one day, everyone who suffers as Calahan suffered is afforded the same levels of support, regardless of their backgrounds.