Brain on Fire

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Brain on Fire Movie Poster Image
Brain condition ravages young reporter's life; swearing.
  • PG-13
  • 2018
  • 95 minutes

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 12 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Film values persistence, courage, and teamwork, as well as parental guidance and commitment. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Parents are shown to be supportive, willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to get results. Their earlier divorce doesn't stand in the way of making them fight together for their child. Medical professionals are seen as caring, competent, and proactive. Central character, though outgoing, optimistic, and talented at film's opening, has no opportunity to reflect positive traits; she is at the mercy of her illness. Ethnic diversity throughout.


Several instances show heroine in the midst of violent seizures. Her illness causes volatile, out-of-control behavior: throwing things, upending furniture.


Kissing. A girl wears a bikini. In one humorous scene a featured male character is nude, but a guitar covers his private parts.


Occasional swearing: "s--t," "ass," "d--k," "hell."


New York Post newspaper.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An occasional alcoholic beverage. No drunkenness. Drinking is discussed as a possible underlying cause of illness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Brain on Fire is a movie based on Susannah Cahalan's same-named memoir. As a talented young reporter on the staff of the New York Post, Cahalan (Chloe Grace Moretz) begins exhibiting unusual behavior and experiencing strange physical symptoms. With no diagnosis apparent, she and her loved ones are left without hope of recovery ... until the arrival of a brilliant doctor who refuses to give up. Cahalan's behavior is volatile at times; she's out of control and subject to violent seizures. Swearing includes use of "s--t," "ass," " hell," and "d--k." A young couple kisses and embraces; it's implied that they've slept together. In one humorous scene, a young man is nude, his genitals covered by the guitar he plays. Both the memoir and the film were created in the hopes of educating the public about anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disorder. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byveroPRN87 June 6, 2019


I’m a student nurse searching for a movie on mental issues. Brain on fire shows how important and necessary it is to correctly diagnose patients. It can actuall... Continue reading
Adult Written byboycecc August 28, 2018

Insightful, but the message is garbled

What drew me to the movie is that I suffered similar situations such as the seizures, hospitalization and "safe" answers to what may have caused the p... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bykittycool1001 June 29, 2018

Drama is sad yet uplifting

This movie is one of my favorites. There is a couple beers drank and she says she had a glass of wine. Boss asks her coworker if she is on drugs. Has some swear... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byEmilia Fernandez July 15, 2018

2/5? More like 5/5

I love this movie i cried most of the times it’s really good it’s sad bc it can happen in real life and this story actually did happen so it’s pretty much based... Continue reading

What's the story?

Susannah Cahalan (Chloe Grace Moretz) has everything to look forward to in BRAIN ON FIRE. Celebrating her 21st birthday with her divorced parents, Tom (Richard Armitage) and Rhona (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Stephen (Thomas Mann), the young man she's fallen in love with, is wonderful. Her "cub" reporter job at the New York Post is everything she hoped it would be. Nothing has prepared the bright young woman for the tragedy that is about to transpire. An onslaught of strange behavior -- sometimes manic, sometimes depressed -- as well as sounds magnified and voices besieging her are troublesome at first and then cannot be ignored. Violent seizures follow. And though she tries to minimize the condition and carry on, the behavior escalates, soon becoming out of control. Her loving parents are close at her side, as is Stephen, but thorough medical examinations and hospital visits cannot stop the family's growing desperation. Only when it appears that there's no medical explanation for Susannah's condition and that she may have to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for an indeterminate time does one special doctor join the medical team and refuse to give up. 

Is it any good?

Kudos to the real-life Susannah Cahalan and the creative team for bringing a little-known but harrowing medical condition to light, but the movie as a dramatic film simply doesn't stand up. A good portion of Brain on Fire is devoted to Susannah's behavior and growing anguish as her rare brain disorder takes hold. It really happened. But watching sequence after sequence of an assault on her mind by sounds, voices, and increasingly erratic behavior in the workplace and at home becomes repetitious, and even the chilling seizures lose their impact. Chloe Grace Moretz does the best she can with this grown-up role after a series of resounding successes as a child and teen actress. Supporting players are fine but are given little to play beyond the situation at hand. Still, if the final words that appear on screen are true, Cahalan's memoir has had a major impact on diagnoses of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, and that's a remarkable outcome.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the differences between telling a true story in documentary form and telling that story in a fictionalized version with actors and scripted dialogue. Which are you most likely to watch? Why? Do you think fictionalizing a true story invites a wider audience?

  • In making a fictional film based on a true story like Brain on Fire, there are always some liberties that must be taken. For example, no one has written down dialogue from a scene that actually took place; it has to be re-created. How much license are you comfortable with? Where might you go to get more detailed true information?

  • Susannah Cahalan wrote a book (memoir) about her illness, so if you were aware that it was a true story, you knew that it would end well. Does knowing how a film will resolve spoil the experience of viewing it? What makes a film "journey" enjoyable despite its predictability?

  • What character strengths did Susannah exhibit in this film? Her parents? Stephen? Why were these qualities essential for Susannah's recovery?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate