MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: Susanah Calahan is a passionate young author for The New York Post, as well as a lover to her boyfriend Stephen and daughter to her divorced parents. Eccentric and personable, Susanah is a sweet, pleasant person to be around. One day, she starts to experience strange symptoms that begin to influence every area of her life. They start as dissociative episodes with heightened senses, then continue to develop into severe psychotic episodes as time passes. Based on a true story, Brain on Fire depicts Susanah’s inner and outer body experience during her illness while doctors struggle to find a remedy.
I have many positive things to say about Brain on Fire. To start, I was very impressed with the editing of the film because I feel like a lot of emotion was portrayed that way. I felt like I understood how Susanah was feeling during these strange, sickly spells. I think it was really important for the editors to include so much audio and visual detail, especially because most of Susanah’s experiences took place in her body and mind. As Susanah began to lose herself both physically and emotionally to this disease, as a viewer I was able to go through that experience with her – I even teared up at times. Imagine having your life be perfectly aligned one minute, and the next minute you’re losing everything you worked for, including yourself. I can only imagine how imprisoning that must feel, and I strongly feel that the movie did a fantastic job illustrating that.
I also thoroughly enjoyed watching the personal development come from Susanah’s close friends and family as they were supporting her through her illness. For example, Susanah’s co-worker Margo first presents herself as a witty, smart-mouthed desk neighbor whose personality is quite brash. However, as the movie continues you start to see Margo’s soft spot for Susanah. While the illness was still new, Margo kept calling Susanah into work for a conference meeting that she completely forgot about. She left some tough-love-type voicemails before concluding that it was Susanah’s responsibility to show up. Then, as it became abundantly clear that Susanah had an illness that she had no control over, Margo kept a close eye on her during office hours. She even visited Susanah at the hospital when the illness was at its all-time worst, when she was barely functional and completely non-verbal. At the end of the movie, you can still see Margo’s apprehension as she checks on Susanah, which I found cute and rewarding to watch.
I was also incredibly satisfied with Chloe Grace Moretz’s acting as Susanah. I feel she did a fantastic job expressing the smothering feeling of being trapped in your own head without knowing the cause or how to escape. Her dark cynicism and extreme optimism throughout the movie were very similar to the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, which was one of the misdiagnoses that she was given. That was another way I felt deeply connected to the movie and Susanah, because I can relate to those euphoric/depressive episodes. If I were to choose any actress to accurately portray what that looks like, Chloe Grace Moretz would be the first name to come to mind. I also liked the scene where she listened to the music Stephen pre-recorded for her. She did an amazing job showing the audience that Susanah was still in there, and that she wanted to come out. I could practically see the old Susanah in her eyes begging to be set free.
I highly recommend this movie to anyone who’s interested in mental health or psychology. I was kept on the edge of my seat since the beginning of the movie, just wondering “What’s the diagnosis gonna be?” Susanah’s condition is real and more common than you may think. If you can’t find any other reason that you should watch this movie, then watch it to educate yourself and be aware of the commonality of Anti-NMDA-Receptor Encephalitis. You may encounter someone one day who needs this knowledge more than you do. Regardless, you need to watch Brain on Fire. It’s captivating, interesting, emotional and mysterious. Would I watch this again? Absolutely! Brain on Fire has definitely earned a high place on my favorite movies list.