“Brain On Fire”: the Screenplay That Went Up In Flames

Imagine this:

You’re woken up by your alarm Sunday morning at 9:00 on the dot, determined to finally get around to doing the readings you were supposed to do in September. You promptly hit snooze. You properly wake up at just past 10:00, less determined, but now with a little more energy in your movements— enough to check your phone, scroll through your Twitter feed, send out your obligatory morning streaks for Snapchat—and eventually, you find yourself sitting in front of your laptop with a large cup of instant coffee and a Clif bar.

Netflix is still open from the night before (you, of course, still have years worth of catching up to do that you haven’t quite accomplished in the two months you’ve had Netflix), and this time, they think you’d really be interested in watching Brain On Fire, their 2016 adaptation of a book by the same name. Now, you, being the avid reader you are— (seriously? Why are you buying another book when you haven’t finished the six others you bought in the last month?)— you remember when this book was all over shelves at the Coles in Halifax Shopping Center and the Chapters store across from IMAX Theatres. You remember looking at the cover and vaguely recalling that of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, thinking wow, this is intriguing.

So, you click on it, because Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness had a certain, unforgettable emotional gravitas, and you assume the film ought to have something similar. Also, you weren’t really planning to do those readings, were you?

After 90 minutes of steadily decreasing interest (and, in the classic example of an inverse relationship, steadily increasing disappointment), Brain On Fire has not only made you feel bored to death, but angry enough to write a review, three years late.

So here you are.

Chloë Grace Moretz tries to play Susannah Cahalan, a New York Post journalist and anthropomorphisation of the word “millennial”— key word being tries. For most of the film, she only succeeds in vaguely encouraging viewers to remember their middle school drama club improv exercises. There’s this one scene (around 40 minutes in) where she has an outburst in the office, screaming things like “I can’t take this anymore”, “everything’s falling apart”, “I’m broke”, et cetera. Then, in a ~shocking, horrifying, sickening~ twist, she’s simultaneously laughing and crying, standing up on a table, yelling “I’m so happy!”

It’s a broad range of emotions for sure, and honestly, I give kudos to her performance, because Moretz’s technical work as an actress really does shine through in some moments. Moretz just seemed to face the same problem actors of Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief faced— awful, awful screenwriting. I’m still not entirely sure how film adaptations of books lose so much in translation; the script is practically right there, just waiting to be copied and pasted.

I digress.

Though the film is centered around Cahalan’s character, Cahalan… doesn’t seem to do much. Moretz does her acting exercises, of course, and the other characters react accordingly, but other than those fleeting moments of potential, a large majority of the film seems torn between wanting to be a House M.D. episode and wanting to be a biopic. In all honesty, if the producers had settled on making the film like another episode of House, it probably would have had more emotional impact as well as coherence— of which, as it is now, is painfully lacking. The film alternates between indifferent lows and weirdly uncomfortable highs, and it dangles moments of potential emotional impact in viewers’ faces before snatching them away before they can even develop.

Let me explain:

Cahalan is suddenly struck by three seizures during the film. Understandably, these are meant to be moments of great tension and swooping lows for our poor protagonist. The film, however, takes the image of her seizures (and the reactions of her boyfriend, parents, etc.) and riddles it with blurs, echoing voices, and other effects to generally water down the experience as a whole. As a result, we’re gently pushed away from the suspense of the scene instead of faced with the blunt reality of her condition. Cahalan suffers from violent, psychotic outbreaks and screaming, but none of the scenes have any real build-up. Overall, we’re given a sense of second-hand embarrassment and mild confusion. It’s as though somebody offscreen alternates between holding up signs that say “ACT CRAZY”, “ACT SAD”, and “ACT HAPPY”. Moretz certainly doesn’t struggle with the switch between those three emotions, but there exist moments that show her full potential as an actor, and the role only seems to trap her in some harsh mimicry of a performance.

When the diagnosis comes— blink and you miss it, really— Cahalan’s parents (played by Carrie-Anne Moss and Richard Armitage) have some mistimed smiles. Maybe it happened in post-production and they really did smile at the right times, but it just felt uncomfortable to see Dr. Najjar give devastating news like “her brain is on fire” and her parents grin at each other like they’ve just gotten married.

Like. What?

There’s another scene involving her parents, when Armitage’s character, Mr. Cahalan, starts to doubt that their daughter will ever recover and visibly loses hope over the situation. Moss does a fantastic job of bringing him in with a few words, and it looks like they’re about to have an emotional moment, enough to make any parent cry— and then she walks away. What was set up to be a scene that could illustrate how divorced couples can come together in their child’s time of need ends up being an impersonal, cold slap to the face. “I need you, and Susannah needs you,” she says, then leaves her ex-husband to sulk.

Scenes like these permeate the movie so much that the overall result is just a lot of white noise. It’s almost as though the post-production team didn’t know what to make of the story, so they mashed everything together into some semblance of plot and turned up the ReelSmart Motion Blur on scenes that appeared to need it.

On top of it all, what the film lacks in overall congruity, it does… not make up for in cinematography. It certainly provides hints of what could be beautiful shots, but there’s nothing of note— it feels like a high quality, student-produced film. I was mostly disappointed because it had the potential to be striking and poignant with its visual storytelling, but that potential was wasted by relying on bad screenwriting to carry the film through.

In a sense, Brain On Fire seems to be the epitome of wasted potential. All the pieces were in place: a decent cast, a good setting, a fascinating premise, and the original book still in print.  However, good setting or premise does not a good film make, and unfortunately, Brain On Fire stumbled over its own feet and off a cliff to plummet to mediocrity.


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