Brain on Fire is the true story of Susannah Cahalan, who underwent a frightening series of physical and behavioral changes at the age of 24. She was a reporter at the New York Post and should have been at the peak of her health and working hard to advance her career.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays Susannah Cahalan. Her symptoms were so bizarre that doctors couldn’t figure out her problem. They blamed it on excessive drinking or mental illness. She grew paranoid and had seizures. As time went on she became almost catatonic.
Most of the film is devoted to the struggle she, her parents, and her boyfriend went through to find answers. Thomas Mann plays her boyfriend Stephen. Her father Tom (Richard Armitage) and her mother Rhona (Carrie-Anne Moss) had to be there fighting the doctors every step of the way to keep looking for a cause and a solution.
In many ways, this film reminded me of the documentary film Unrest. It’s another disease that doctors don’t understand. Susannah’s situation has improved, but the people in Unrest still wait for answers.
Dr. Souhel Najjar, a doctor known for solving the unsolvable, was called in to examine Susannah. He found a clue to the answer by giving Susannah a paper and pencil test – he asked her to draw a clock. She drew it with all the numbers on the right side, showing that one side of her brain wasn’t functioning properly.
The diagnosis: anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. This condition is a disease that attacks the brain. The disease was only discovered in 2007 and may explain many cases that were attributed to insanity or demonic possession over the past centuries.
Susannah’s boss (Tyler Perry) and a co-worker (Jenny Slate) stuck with her through the crisis, which was surprising to me. She’d done things that were destructive to her newspaper and to the people around her. Instead of firing her, they were more concerned than angry.
As a story about a woman’s medical crisis, the story was told in a straight-forward way. Chloë Grace Moretz adequately portrayed the horrifying behavioral and physical experience Susannah went through.
I was a bit shocked by the vehement dislike many reviewers felt for this film. I admit it wasn’t a masterpiece, but it told the story it was meant to tell. The idea that an illness so devastating was only “discovered” in 2007 is terrifying. And diagnosing it remains iffy. We know so little about our own biology. People who might have been cured of something like this in the past were sent to rot in asylums or left to die.
2016’s Brain on Fire is available now on Netflix. The film is based on the autobiographical Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. A 2012 interview with the book’s author on NPR’s Fresh Air is worth a listen. Take a look at the rather melodramatic trailer.