A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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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?
- On DVD or streaming: June 22, 2018
- Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Armitage, Carrie-Anne Moss
- Director: Gerard Barrett
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, brief language, and partial nudity
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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