It is 1967, and troubled misfit Susanna (Winona Ryder) has been committed by her parents to a mental institution. There, she finds the rocky road to recovery, along with a cadre of fellow patients who become her friends. Chief among them is Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a dangerously uncontrolled live wire who pushes everything around her to the limit and beyond. Polly (Elisabeth Moss) is a burn victim, hideously disfigured after a particularly self-destructive experience. Daisy (Brittany Murphy) has serious Oedipal issues over which she is in steadfast denial. Nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave) struggle to help all of these disturbing, yet deeply affecting, personalities.

Girl, Interrupted is simply one of the best films to deal with mental illness ever to be made in this country. James Mangold's adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's novel is wonderfully strong at character delineation, moves along briskly, and is filled with humor and startling insight. Mangold returns to the sensitive human study of his affecting debut feature, Heavy, after the overblown macho posturings of Cop Land. (His vision was rumored to have been impeded by producer interference.) You find yourself rooting for every one of the girls, and what could easily have been an exploitative, heavily 'serious' drag of a film instead becomes an emotionally rewarding, unforgettable experience. There's a winning, funny scene in an ice cream parlor, as well as a deeply moving, very simple moment of the inmates watching the highly metaphorical Wizard of Oz on TV. Mangold elicits honest performances from the entire cast and resonantly evokes the late '60s, a time when anything seemed possible, except to the young women he focuses on. As in Heavy, he finds a rough kind of dun-hued beauty in the most unlikely of settings, aided by Jack Green's sympatico cinematography. The use of period music is perfectly gauged, especially The Chambers Brothers' 'Time Has Come Today,' which instantly transports Susanna from the hospital to a drug-hazed party, where she first encounters her boyfriend (Jared Leto).

Ryder and, especially, Jolie give wrenchingly empathic performances that verge on true greatness. After missteps like The House of the Spirits and Boys, it's a relief to see Ryder reclaiming the turf she originally made her own in Heathers, as anguished adolescent Everywoman. She's as natural and perfectly proportioned a beauty as Olivia de Havilland was in her famous mental illness turn in The Snake Pit, but here, both actress and conception are far superior, multi-faceted and less melodramatic. Her identification with the role must have run deep; she goes through a gamut of emotions without ever striking a single false note. It's easy to accept her rebellion and creative strivings, both thwarted in a time that saw the birth of women's lib and free love, while simultaneously making it possible for parents to send their own child into the loony bin. Jolie, with her preternaturally lewd beauty, is electrifying, a natural alpha female and mercurial ringleader to the other girls. The role has similarities to her breakout Gia, but here, in the hands of a director with real taste and talent, she blooms with a feral intensity that make her a shoo-in for supporting-actress recognition this year. She and Ryder share a miraculous chemistry. You feel the deep, often scary bond of friendship between them, and one impulsive moment, when a joyful Susanna suddenly kisses Lisa, is breathtaking. The always watchable Murphy is heartbreaking; the pain welling in her dark eyes being palpable. Mangold was diabolically canny to cast Goldberg and Redgrave. They both have but to merely appear on screen to instantly register, respectively, wise, no-nonsense maternal warmth and brainy, equally comforting guidance of the most elevated sort. (When Susanna calls the Redgrave 'the great and powerful Dr. Wick,' you believe her.)

--David Noh