Boy Interrupted is a heartbreaking documentary about the Perry family; Evan Perry killed himself at the age of 15, leaving behind his parents Dana and Hart. The film consists of old photographs, old videos and films of Evan, and interviews with Dana, Hart, Evan's half brother Nicholas Kopple-Perry, Evan's grandmother, a teacher, Evan's psychiatrist Ladd Spiegel, and his school friends. From a very early age, Evan was preoccupied by death and was planning on how to kill himself by the age of five. He was diagnosed with depression and put on Prozac, but progress was slow. He could be extremely engaging and creative, but when he was in a depressed mood he was entirely unreachable. At the age of nine he was listening to the music of Bob Dylan and Nirvana and was writing songs about dying. He made several suicidal gestures and after one serious threat of suicide he was eventually was hospitalized at Four Winds at the age of 10. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His parents talk about the difficulty they had in coming to terms with him being in a locked-down ward with other very seriously mentally ill children. Eventually he was put on lithium and he stabilized. He started attending Wellspring school, and this turned out to be good for him, after he settled down and started making friends. Interestingly, one of the faculty at the school says that it was when that they started holding him accountable for the harm he was causing others that Evan's behavior improved. From there he started attending York Prep, where he thrived. For several years he was doing well, but at the age of 15 he tried going off his lithium. This turned out to be a bad idea, because his mood soon spiraled out of control. Even though he had an appointment with his psychiatrist to go back on lithium, he killed himself at home before restarting his medication. We see him from his birth to his funeral, and we see the pain experienced by his parents, his half-brother and his friends. It's impossible not to be moved.
The style of the documentary is simple; interviewees talk to an interviewer who is behind the camera; most of the time they are calm, but towards the end many of them cry. All through the film there's a somber orchestral score by Michael Bacon which heightens the emotions. The editing is professional -- Dana and Hart Perry are professional film makers who have made several films for cable TV previously.
There are several aspects of the film that raise concerns. Most obviously, even by the time of the funeral Evan's parents had decided to do something with it, because they asked friends to film it, despite the fact that his suicide note said he wanted a private funeral, and that he didn't want people from his school to know how he died. It's clear that filmmaking is in their blood, and is central to their own way of dealing with the world. Further, it's not so clear that the wishes of a depressed boy who killed himself should be paramount; funerals are for those still living.
Evan's middle name was Scott: presumably he was named for his uncle, Scott Perry, his father's brother, who killed himself when he was in his twenties. The most haunting interview of the whole film is with Scott's mother, Evan's grandmother, not because of the richness of her reflections, but because she seems so closed. She says words cannot convey her feelings, and she does not remember finding his body. Hart Perry says his parents were devastated by Scott's suicide -- they shattered like glass. Yet they went on, and similarly Dana and Hart go on.
The film very much presents Evan's problems as a result of his bipolar disease, with Evan's obsession with death coming out of the blue, and his behavior that of a typical bipolar child. The influence of Scott is no more than a genetic one, with bipolar illness running in the family. Unsurprisingly, the film does not explore to what extent Evan's emotions were a reaction to events going on in the family.
It's a little more surprising that the film doesn't do more to explore the difficulty of making treatment decisions. For example, the parents agreed to using antidepressants on Evan when he was very young, although there have been few if any studies studying the efficacy of medications for young children. There's also no discussion of the cost of treatment and how it was covered: long stays in psychiatric hospitals are notoriously expensive. The fact that the family have a home in Manhattan and could afford to send Evan to a Manhattan prep school suggest that they are much more affluent than most, but that doesn't mean they didn't have to battle with health insurance companies. So it seems that the film probably paints a rosy picture of treating serious mental disorder in children.
Finally, there's the choice of title of the film, which is problematic. Girl, Interrupted was a Hollywood movie about the institutionalizing of a teen girl for behaving badly, and questions whether there was anything really wrong with her. Yet the whole point of Boy Interrupted is that there really was something wrong with Evan. His psychiatrist even gives the impression at one point that Evan's suicide was inevitable. So there's no parallel with Girl, Interrupted.
These concerns don't take away from the fundamental power of this documentary, but they do provide points of departure for further discussion. It's a film that will be educational for many, and that could work well as a teaching aid when discussion childhood mental illness.
Link: Movie website
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.