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TIFF Review: Brain on Fire


Imagine being a normal, vibrant 21 year old.  You have your dream job, you’re in a loving relationship.  Things seem to be going well.  Then, just as you traverse the streets of New York City, just going about your days, things start to become fuzzy.  Sounds are amplified, things don’t make sense, you hear voices that aren’t there, see things other’s can’t see.  This is the true story of Susannah Cahalan, adapted from her memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

In the film, Brain on Fire, Susannah is played by Chloe Grace Moretz.  She is a junior reporter at the New York Post, well loved by her editor Richard (Tyler Perry), and by her co-worker (Jenny Slate).  Her parents (Carrie-Anne Moss and Richard Armitage), while divorced, are amicable, even throwing Susannah a birthday party together.  It is here, surrounded by family and her boyfriend Steven (Thomas Mann) that she realizes something is wrong – first zoning out completely then unable to blow out her birthday candles.

Her symptoms worsen from there, though at first Susannah thinks it might be the flu.  Feeling spacey and tired, she makes a trip to the doctor where blood tests and an MRI reveal no abnormalities.  Her symptoms are chalked up to stress and ‘too much partying’, despite no evidential proof that she’s overdoing it.  Susannah tries to cope with life as she deteriorates – having drastic mood swings, then psychotic episodes and eventually seizures, landing her in hospital.

Chloe Grace Moretz clearly comes to this project from a place of passion, and we see how she has matured a little in this role as well.  While some may think her portrayal a little over the top she is there to assure that we understand Susannah’s decline – which was in fact severe.  She had access to video of Susannah in hospital and extensive time with the subject herself.  I frankly thought it was pretty brave, though whether Moretz is really ready to carry such a film on her own can still be argued.  It is hard to say whether the role in the hands of a more experienced actor may have made things more captivating.  It’s the supporting cast here which seems to bear the brunt of the responsibility for filling the film’s best scenes.

Director and screenwriter Gerard Barrett has a tough time making a film that is as compelling as its source material.  Rare is the film that could actually benefit from being a little longer, but a bit more introduction to Susannah before we see her decline would have garnered a little more of an emotional connection.  As well, the film ends very abruptly once Susannah is properly diagnosed.  Little of the struggle of her recovery is shown, and while this makes the ‘happy ending’ very neat, tidy and obvious, it also belittles it slightly.  Injecting a little more drama could have avoided the film from feeling so much like the TV ‘movie of the week’.

Susannah’s tale, while surely one of bravery and survival, is as much a cautionary tale than anything else.  Along the way, her parents fight with the medical professionals at the hospital, looking for answers the doctors don’t have, even as they are on the brink of placing her in a psychiatric facility.  The disease from which Susannah suffered was little known at the time, and still is something that requires public recognition to help those that could be misdiagnosed.  For this purpose, the film is important viewing, however it lacks the true drama that would have made it great movie viewing.  Cahalan’s book is a better window into the truly horrific nature of this disease and her struggle to return to normalcy.


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One Comment

  1. I survived this desease. I am still recovering. I’ve been sick since 2014/2015. Sometimes I feel I was better off going with our Lord, but at the same time I see how much my wife needs me, especially with two kids. One just beginning college and the other still in middle school. Pray you never get this desease and pray that all hospitals throughput our country have the means of diagnosing this desease at half the time they can now. I wish you all the best and hug your loved ones always because this desease either takes your grave or your worst nightmare. Actually, that last word is an under statement.

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