Prozac Nation (United States/German, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Whatever its flaws, one can certainly not accuse Prozac Nation of avoiding risks. The movie, directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (the original Insomnia) and adapted from the book by Elizabeth Wurtzel, doesn't exactly go out on a tightrope, but it frequently veers away from safe ground, in large part due to a riveting performance by Christina Ricci.

For Ricci, this is the proverbial "labor of love", a motion picture she tirelessly pushed to get made (she receives a co-producer credit). Skjoldbjaerg may have directed (and, in doing so, ceded the Insomnia re-make reins to Christopher Nolan), but Prozac Nation is being widely referred to as "Ricci's movie". Part of the reason is her intense behind the scenes participation. The other is the effort she puts forth in front of the camera - a powerhouse example of acting by a young woman who, just barely out of her teens, shows a greater understanding of her chosen craft than many veterans. In portraying Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ricci displays range, depth, and courage. One of the most telling scenes occurs early in the film, where Ricci is showing sitting topless on a bed. It's possible to argue that the nudity is unnecessary, but it goes a long way towards showing how much of herself Ricci was willing to put into this production.

Ricci's performance is a big reason why Prozac Nation is as good as it is. The script, adapted by the director from Wurtzel's autobiographical account of her young adulthood struggles with depression, strikes a balance between dark comedy and pure drama, giving us a tellling portrait of how mental illness can sour every relationship in a person's life. During the course of the film, Elizabeth trashes her friendship with her roommate, Ruby (Michelle Williams), and her love affair with her boyfriend, Rafe (Jason Biggs). Her relationship with her mother (Jessica Lange) is a constant source of emotional turbulence, and her abandonment by her father (Nicholas Campbell) as a child plays a large part in her inability to trust men and her fear of being dumped.

Movies about mental illness and the drugs that are taken to cure them can easily devolve to the level of soap opera material. But Prozac Nation is a cut above, making otherwise decent films playing in the same arena (such as Girl Interrupted) seem formulaic by comparison. This movie does a forceful job of getting the audience into the lead character's mind and giving us a clear, uncompromising perspective on the damage she does to others, and, most tragically, to herself. Every day, Lizzie wakes up in the morning and is afraid she's going to live while battling the gnawing need to find something to "turn off [her] head and turn on [her] heart."

Ricci is ably supported by a group of actors who are willing to fill their roles without attempting to steal the spotlight from her. Jessica Lange tones down her ordinary tendencies to go over the top, and gives us a moving portrayal of Lizzie's overprotective mother, who becomes the target of her daughter's verbal abuse on more than one occasion. Jason Biggs, the American Pie guy, and Michelle Williams, are solid as Lizzie's same-age companions. The only one who falls short in the acting category is Anne Heche, as Lizzie's psychiatrist. For whatever reason, Heche, whose blonde hair and pasty white skin make her look like a ghost, believes that a total lack of emotion is the proper way to play the part. As a result, almost every line of dialogue she speaks rings false. Next time, maybe she should study Lorraine Bracco in "The Soparanos."

Prozac Nation has taken more than a year to reach American theaters (its World Premiere was in September 2001 at the Toronto International Film Festival). Miramax Films hasn't shown confidence in the production – its opening date has shifted more frequently than a five-day weather report. For those who appreciate Ricci's often offbeat work, at least Prozac Nation is finally getting an opportunity to be seen.

Prozac Nation (United States/German, 2001)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2003-03-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1