They used to be called “disease of the week,” melodramas about some heroine or hero fighting a strange, usually deadly illness filmed and consigned to the weak midweek time-slots of network TV.
Not all of them migrated to Lifetime.
“Brain on Fire” didn’t get theatrical release, even though at one time Charlize Theron was slated to do it. It still attracted a solid B-list cast, now headed by Chloe Grace Moretz, and made it to the Toronto Film Festival after completion. And now it’s on Netflix.
Susannah Cahalan (Moretz) is barely done narrating her pleasure at having “my dream job at the New York Post,” at 21 (the real Cahalan was a slightly-more-realistic 24), just finished joking around with her more worldly colleague (Jenny Slate) who calls her “”So bright-eyed I need major sunglasses right now,” with the “get OUTTA my office” gruff-bemused bark of her editor (Tyler Perry) ringing in her ears when it hits her.
She zones out at her 21st birthday party. She glazes over, lies to cover, confesses to “not being myself,” and coughs — a lot.
Before she knows it, she is “trapped in your own body, lost in your own mind.”
Her musician-boyfriend (Thomas Mann, oh so bland) doesn’t quite take her symptoms seriously.
“Hungover? You’re not PREGNANT, are you?”
In interviews, she seems stoned. Colleagues tease her, but the camera captures “concern.” Of course it does. That doesn’t keep her editor from blowing his stack (Well played, Mr. Perry).
And thus begins the medical mystery — bed bugs, “any history of Lyme Disease?” “Stroke? “Blood clot?” “MRI?”
Filmmaker Gerard Barrett visualizes her growing confusion, sleepless madness and isolation. She sweats, freaks out at the slightest noise and then…convulsions.
The film limits itself to the alarm any of us would feel when we don’t know what’s happening. Meltdowns from her divorced parents (“Do you CARE for her, or not?”), pushing the live-in beau aside, mass confusion and the ripple effects of this disruption — to her life, her love, her career, her family — all are staged with a kind of perfunctory chilliness.
Carrie Anne Moss, playing her mother, plays the most interesting variation of concern. She probes, suspects her child is doing that overwhelmed/stressed-out/flip-out thing she might have seen before. Maybe she’s drinking. Maybe drugs. And then, another seizure and focused, fretful mom kicks in — never quite matching her ex’s (Richard Armitage) testy impatience with the medical establishment.
The lack of answers makes one and all a little crazy, and from the reactions from her family you wonder just what they’ve seen in her behavior before.
There’s a puzzling passivity that plays out among almost everybody else, right up to the moment Cahalan just…loses it. Moretz takes this so far over the bipolar top in these moments you cannot believe the white-suited guys with the straight-jackets aren’t called.
That’s when “Brain on Fire” loses its footing in reality. Colleagues take her tirade indulgently and seriously. Seriously? After that “performance?””
“How do you know that?”
“I Googled it.”
Moretz has been an actress to watch since playing the too-wise, supportive little sister in “(500) Days of Summer,” the worldwise female friend of the “Wimpy Kid” crowd and then Hit-Girl to Nic Cage’s Big Daddy in “Kick-Ass.”
This role probably calls for her least subtle work, and we never for a second see this as anything other than a performance. It contrasts too much with the calmly passive-even- after-they’re-scared-witless parents (Armitage’s tirades notwithstanding).
The one “funny” element to the character is her determination to self-diagnose. Susannah corrects every medical professional who offers an opinion with this or that new theory that she’s certain is fact. She keeps Googling.
Barrett doesn’t save Moretz with more effects and moments that show her mania from inside her head. It’s all externals, vexing seizures, tantrums and manic outbursts. Something more like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” might have worked.
And the script doesn’t help her by creating more empathy for Cahalan, more connection with parents, boyfriend and medical professionals (unsympathetic, many of them). It all feels so perfunctory, a string of characters with no “arc.”
Compare this to “The Big Sick” or “Lorenzo’s Oil” or any of a legion of similar films, and the emotional disconnect sticks in the craw. Best selling memoir or not, it’s probable that this story, where the mania needs a softer edge, where the confrontations between parents and the Medical Establishment are the real drama, was not really good fodder for a feature film, “disease of the week” or not.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, brief language and partial nudity
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Tyler Perry, Carrie-Ann Moss, Navid Negahban
Credits:Directed by Gerard Barrett, script by Gerard Barrett, based on the Susannah Cahalan memoir. A Broadgreen/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:29