Brain on Fire is a 2016 autobiographical drama movie directed and written by Irish director Gerard Barrett. The movie is based on Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness and stars Chloë Grace Moretz, Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Tyler Perry, Carrie-Anne Moss and Richard Armitage.
The movie begins with a brief flash forward that shows us Susannah in a catatonic, suffering state in a hospital bed.
The flash forward stops. Susannah is a reporter for The New York Post, engaged to Stephen. Her life seems to be going well: she is employed, has friends, and a boyfriend who loves her.
However, in the middle of her birthday party, she has a brief episode of spacing out. For a moment, a very brief moment, she loses track of reality. As brief as it is, Susannah doesn’t really pay attention to what happened.
However, these moments soon start to get more and more frequent. More and more violent.
Whether at work in the newsroom or with people close to her, Susannah has moments when she loses the ability to concentrate, to think. Any noise bothers her and distracts her, up to very strong migraines, bewilderment, memory loss. Totally random alterations in mood, in thinking.
Susannah begins to lose herself, her identity, and the people around her dismiss it all as work stress, too much fatigue, change of routine compared to when she lived with her parents.
Of course, the cause is none of those things, and the first to worry is her mother, who will say that “it’s not her,” it’s not Susannah.
There are not enough positive adjectives and compliments I can give the director, actors, and screenplay to begin to describe the quality of this movie.
Chloë Grace Moretz’s acting is palpable, distressing, utterly realistic. Her portrayal of Susannah, in her moment of loss of self, is incredible. The mood swings she portrays, her looks of fear and confusion, the growing discomfort and pain she feels, her terror, until she reaches her catatonic state, is pure acting art.
The film accompanies the story and the girl’s increasingly violent symptoms with disturbed and intrusive sounds, hisses, and visual distortions to represent Susannah’s broken world.
These sound effects slowly blend in with Susannah’s everyday reality. In one scene she tries to play the piano, but the notes she hears are distorted, ruined.
Brain on Fire also shows some facets of modern medicine: the answers don’t always exist, and it’s easy to accuse doctors of not being able to “do their job” in a moment of dread. And it’s just as easy for some doctors to dismiss a patient’s symptoms with sloppy and approximate explanations. But that’s not always the case.
Doctors gave Susannah a chance to live again. They saved her life.
A moving, distressing movie based on a true story, portrayed to perfection.