Overlooked Movie Monday: Prozac Nation

by Vincent Scarpa on August 29, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

Overlooked really is the first adjective I’d ascribe to my choice for this week’s Overlooked Movie, “Prozac Nation“. Based on Elizabeth Wurtzel‘s 1994 memoir about suffering major depression, the film was made in 2001, and premiered at Toronto that very same year, with the rights being purchased by Miramax. But it wasn’t until 2005 that “Prozac Nation” saw a US release, and even then, it was on Starz. Why the film was prolonged for so many years, and why it is still absent from pop culture and most video rental stores, remains a mystery.

Now, I know I have a reputation here on Scene-Stealers for reviewing only films I adore; films I think are flawless. “Prozac Nation” is not one of those films. It’s  flawed, in more ways that one, but also has a lot to offer its audience, I believe. So, finally, a non-biased review.

As I mentioned, the film is not without its weaknesses, but the performances are the strong parts. Christina Ricci plays Wurtzel, the Harvard student with manic tendencies, in a wise casting choice. Ricci is actually quite talented, and I think she shines in this role (not an easy one by any means, mind you). We buy into her madness, her mania, and her depression so easily, because it’s all in her face. I never think of Ricci as underrated, until I consider her roles in films like this, “Monster”, and her Emmy-nominated stint on “Grey’s Anatomy“ that I realize she’s really fucking talented. Why isn’t she on the big screen much anymore?

The magnificent Jessica Lange plays Elizabeth’s mother, a bit depressed and manic in her own right, and gives a terrific performance. She smokes like a chimney, all the while becoming her character. It’s a performance I imagine would’ve garnered her major buzz during Awards Season if the film had a proper release. Also quite good is a post-Ellen Anne Heche, who plays Elizabeth’s therapist. Even Jason Biggs isn’t horrible as Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Rafe.

The only disappointing actor in the film—and it pains me to say it, because I do love her work—is Michelle Williams, as Elizabeth’s roommate. She’s consistently stoic, but never in the right way. Thankfully, she’s grown a ton as an actress, so we can all forgive her this minor slip-up. Yes?

The flaws of the film are both minor and major. Most are quick to point out the various anachronistic errors in the film (Facebook in 1985? Really, editing team?), and some have global issues with the structure of the film and its abrupt ending. I argue that the film is not necessarily structured as well as it could have been—especially in regard to character growth—but then am reminded that the film is about deep depression; a messy problem to put on the screen.

Perhaps the disjunctive structure and seemingly out-of-place scenes are in fact placed to mirror Wurtzel’s struggle. Or maybe that’s delving too deep and expecting too much. Watch it and you choose. The abrupt ending doesn’t bother me at all, because the film doesn’t follow the typical narrative arch. I wasn’t expecting a happy, tied-up-in-a-bow ending, especially in a film on depression.

These flaws aside, I think what the film does best is stay true to its aim: to show an audience what mental illness looks like. It’s a goal that several films have failed to do properly (Am I the only one who hated “Girl Interrupted”?) and I think the film deserves merit for giving us so much of what mental illness is, rendered perfectly by Ricci.

Rent the movie and see for yourself, but I think “Prozac Nation” has been sadly overlooked. What audiences are missing are fantastic performances (Ricci and Lange as a mother-daughter duo is perfection) and a genuine, heartfelt portrayal of mental illness on the screen.

Vincent Scarpa

Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of Emerson College, and the recipient of the Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Baltimore Review, and plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing 2011.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy August 30, 2010 at 5:33 am

I’m interested in why you don’t like Girl, Interrupted. I think it captures a different kind of mental illness in a different point in American culture/history. Not all mental illness looks the same, I guess is what I’m getting at.

Still haven’t seen Prozac Nation, which you think I would after how many times I read the book in high school/college. A recent reread attempt, though, leads me to think Wurtzel is officially retired from my life.

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2 Troy August 30, 2010 at 9:06 am

I loved the book and read it many times. So I was excited to see the movie and I was let down. Now it has been many years since I saw it and I do remember finding myself comparing it to the book maybe a bit too much. But only because I loved the book. But now that you bring the film back up I do think it is worth rewatching, since I have not read the book in years.

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3 Vincent Scarpa August 30, 2010 at 11:19 am

Amy– Something about Girl, Interrupted felt super contrived on this end, whereas I totally bought into Prozac Nation. Could just be personal preference!

Troy– Definitely give it a re-watch; it won’t hurt!

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4 Jennifer C January 9, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I think the movie reference to “the Facebook” isn’t what we think of as Facebook today but what it stems from, in that Harvard did have Facebook in the 80′s, but not online (obviously).

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5 Chip K. September 3, 2013 at 11:44 am

I caught the Facebook reference in the movie as well and that’s what got me to this web page. The person above comments about a pre internet Facebook but I don’t know anything about that nor can I locate any information about it. But, if this is the only problem with the film I guess I’ll continue watching.

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6 jo September 15, 2013 at 11:28 am

I heard it on the movie too. It confused me because I knew the movie was from 2001. I was trying to figure out when the story takes place (1985) and was very confused. Facebook wasn’t even around in 2001 so I knew it was something else. Anyway back then they had books called “Who’s Who Among American High School Students. I am guessing this , or something similar, i what the character is calling “the face book.” Maybe Harvard had a student directory?

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7 JMH November 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Harvard had a book, (directory) that was handed out to all the students. It had a picture of each student along with their name and other info. That book was still being used in 2003 when “TheFaceBook” as we know it today was launched. At first it was FaceMash. Later changed to TheFaceBook.

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8 Eric Melin November 22, 2013 at 11:31 am

Thanks for the info, JMH. Much appreciated!

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