Brain on Fire: Is it Worth the Watch?

“The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess.”
– Susannah Cahalan

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease in which the body attacks the brain causing inflammation in its right hemisphere, altering reality and reactions to it. She was the 217th person to be diagnosed with this catastrophic disease. Several years later, in 2012, Cahalan wrote a memoir, “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” which helped give more recognition to the devastating effects of this disease. Adding further awareness, Gerard Barrett directed a movie based on this memoir entitled “Brain on Fire” released in 2016. This movie is available on Netflix, where I recently watched it.

The basic idea of the movie is that a young news reporter suffers from many symptoms of a rare and almost unknown disease and is left to find the answers herself. In the movie, Cahalan is portrayed as a very motivated worker and a very loving daughter. She lives in New York with her boyfriend. She starts experiencing symptoms—brief headaches, ringing in her head, and slight dissociation—on her birthday. They quickly evolve into seizures and brief moments of manic behavior and hallucinations. She frequently visits doctors to get answers, but rarely succeeds; rather she is prescribed some medications (that she refuses to take).

One doctor chalks up her symptoms to her just drinking too much as she had one glass of wine a day and sometimes shared a bottle with her boyfriend. Several other doctors consider diagnosing her with diseases such as schizophrenia and psychosis. but never set these in stone. These back and forth answers trigger her to start researching more on her symptoms. She self-diagnoses with DID (dissociative identity disorder) and bipolar disorder. She tells her disapproving doctor about this. He responds, “Just because you have a bruise on your face doesn’t mean you’ve been hit.”

As her “month of madness” goes on, she stops moving and talking altogether. This prompts one of her doctors to seek out Dr. Najjar–who is well experienced in neurology–to help Cahalan. He runs a series of tests that that monitor her mobility and cognitive abilities. After she draws a clock with all of the numbers on one side, Dr. Najjar soon comes to the conclusion that the right hemisphere of her brain is inflamed. He, then, takes a sample of her brain so that he can examine it. He diagnoses her with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease in which the body’s immune system starts attacking the NMDA receptors after getting a viral infection causing the inflammation in the brain. This disease is cured by filtering out the antibodies from the bloodstream.

“I like the movie because it draws attention to an illness that I didn’t even know about,” said Gwen Snarr, a student.

While the movie effectively spreads awareness of a scarcely known disease and accurately tells the story, the movie is riddled with weaknesses. The overall emotion and tone of the movie is cooked to perfection. Nevertheless, there are some boring and frustrating scenes, as well as over-exaggerated acting. Actors inflate certain symptoms to the point of it being annoying and even stereotypical in some ways.

Little details prompt certain moods. In the beginning of the movie, the colors are highly saturated, reflecting Cahalan’s healthiness. Later on, the color turns dull, and dramatic lighting underscores her illness, creating a mood of despair. The examination rooms are deep blue, or have dark backgrounds filled with bright lighting, heightening the emotional intensity of the scene. When she becomes ill, scenes are almost always filmed from a high angle; other characters are positioned to stand taller than Cahalan to make her look fragile and sick. Even though she is made to look weak in shots, she still takes up most of the camera frame compared to any other character, showing she is still the main focus of the scene. Close up shots of Cahalan’s establish intimacy, generating empathy.

Initially, Cahalan’s has a very neat and put together look with highly saturated clothing and styled hair. As the character becomes more ill, subtle makeup effects of high contrast and greasy hair succeed in portraying the character’s illness. Additionally, a gray tone infuses most scenes, most noticeably in the hospitals and her workplace, showing that those are the less happy places in her life. In contrast, other characters wear brightly colored clothing. Perhaps this symbolizes Cahalan’s love for their company.

Many characters appear throughout the film: Cahalan’s doctors, her boyfriend, her boss, her coworkers, and even her parents. At first, they all seem extraneous, but in fact they are not. These characters actually play a big part in the movie, each in their own small way. They drive the plot and add conflict. Cahalan’s father hates her boyfriend, Stephen, and his constant disapproval of him often gets in the way of caring for his daughter when she needs him most. Cahalan’s boss, Richard, taunts her work and causes her stress. Uncaring and confused doctors either blame her symptoms on a small problem and ignore the bigger picture, or they give up on her due to their lack of knowledge.

Overall this movie perfectly executed its mood with lighting, makeup, and camera placement despite some minor setbacks and is definitely worth the watch.