Netlflix’s ‘Brain on Fire’ Recounts the True Story of a Journalist’s Terrifying Illness
“Brain on Fire” opens on the image of a young woman strapped to a hospital bed where she struggles violently. It is New York City and that is a dangerous place to be when one is losing control of their mind. But this is the true story of journalist Susannah Cahalan.
Cahalan wrote her best-selling autobiographical book “Brain on Fire.” about her terrifying experience. Now Netflix has adapted it into a suspenseful and unnerving feature-length film written and directed by Irish director Gerard Barrett and starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Susannah.
At 24, Susannah made unusually quick progress in her ambition to write articles of substance, instead of her usual social media fluff. She has loving, albeit divorced, parents (Carrie Ann Moss, Richard Armitage), as well as a mellow musician boyfriend Stephen (Thomas Mann). Her lucky break comes when her editor Richard (Tyler Perry) assigns her the interview with a #MeToo implicated US Senator. It’s a dream assignment.
In the days leading up to the interview, Susannah begins to experience blackouts, voices coming from her faucet as well as an imaginary bed bug infestation. A line up of private practitioners all share the same diagnosis. She is overly stressed. She drinks too much. She takes too many drugs. Things grow worse for Susannah when the interview ends in disaster. She is admitted into a hospital and placed in the care of specialists.
They can offer no hope and it would seem Susannah is doomed to spend the rest of her life catatonic and in the psyche ward until a pair of fresh eyes set Susannah on the path to recovery. And in turn opens the way for numerous sufferers of the same disease to find relief.
Chloë Grace Moretz leaves her child star past behind. It is a challenging role for a young actress that got her initial exposure staring in remakes of older films like “Carrie” and “Let Me In.” Along the way, she has worked with actors like Juliette Binoche and directors like Martin Scorcese. For as young as she is, she comes off as a talented and prepared actress, able to hold the screen convincingly as her character becomes increasingly unstable and finally catatonic.
Where the film fails is in its structure. So much time is spent building Susannah’s fall from sanity that little time is left for the steps towards her salvation. Her healing and recovery feel almost rushed. More time could have been spent on the triumphant moment the film had been building towards for over an hour. It is a resolution that is almost too easy when compared to what has gone on before.
“Brain on Fire” is the true-life story of a young woman’s descent into a mental hell and how her suffering was eventually overcome. It’s a story made compelling by powerful performances, especially from its lead actor, Chloë Grace Moretz.
“Brain on Fire” begins streaming June 22 on Netflix.