It’s not common to see high-profile films centred around a chronic illness. Usually, it’s a side story or a passing comment. I guess it’s because films that portray illnesses of any kind are subject to a lot of criticism. It makes sense though. A lack of research or misrepresentation can cause negative consequences for people in real life. This is why it’s refreshing to see films like Brain On Fire have it as a central plot.
Directed by Gerard Barrett, the film is based on Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of the same name with Chloe Grace Moretz playing the lead role. It follows a young Susannah as she starts her career as a journalist while working for the New York Post. She experiences strange symptoms like hearing voices and hypersensitivity to noises which progress to erratic behaviour and seizures. Doctors continuously misdiagnose her. Eventually, they find the problem to be a rare autoimmune disorder (anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis). To put it simply, her brain is on fire.
There are two ways I can critique this film. How I feel about the film itself and how I feel about its representation of the condition.
The film is…okay I guess. The narrative structure seemed very cookie cutter. Things played out one after the other without giving the audience a chance to process what happened. Not a lot of time was taken to delve into the emotions the main character would have felt. When we got those moments, they felt out of place and overly dramatic.
It was difficult for me to connect with Moretz. I can tell this was an attempt for her to get experience in a more grown-up role. I think she gave it a good shot but wasn’t able to fully portray the complexities of the character and her circumstances. To then throw in an undiagnosed chronic illness- it was hard to buy.
By all means, the film wasn’t terrible. In fact, I think the sound design did a great job in providing a more immersive experience to the audience when it came to her symptoms. I just feel like as a film, it didn’t push any boundaries and when it comes to themes like illness I think they missed a good (albeit risky) opportunity to do so.
As a film, Brain on Fire did not wow me creatively. However, I do admire the efforts made for the representation of being diagnosed with a chronic illness, especially as a young person. I think it’s amazing that Susannah’s story was adapted into a film. I think it’s important for more audiences to see stories like this.
Many chronic illnesses are difficult to diagnose. It’s why many patients go through several diagnoses before doctors get it right. While watching, I had so many “Oh my gosh that happened to me!” moments when the doctors were passing off her illness as stress and drinking too much.
Susannah later gets diagnosed with a mental health condition. Once again, this is something all too common with patients with chronic diseases. It’s tricky because many mental health conditions cause similar symptoms to physical diseases. Unfortunately, because of that, some doctors are quick to accept a mental health diagnosis rather than listening to the patient and investigating further. In the case of Susannah, her disease was caused by an issue inside her brain, which I imagine made it all the more difficult for doctors to see the difference.
I also love the representation of a young person living with a chronic illness. We generally associate disease and illness with age. It’s why no one would offer me a seat on public transport, even when I’m in a lot of pain. Young people aren’t supposed to be sick. But many of us are, so it’s great to see that represented. I think it helps to broaden people’s understanding of living with a disease.
As mentioned before, Brain on Fire isn’t a terrible film, it’s just not exceptional, however, I appreciate the fact that it was made. With more representation like this is film, television and online media, I think it can aid a shift in societal opinions for chronic illnesses.
Brain On Fire premiered at TIFF in 2018 and was released on Netflix in 2018