Despite creating a great divide between its audience, viewers either love it or loathe it, Prozac Nation is one of the only films to achieve cult status without a commercial release. It is an adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s frank, no-holds-barred memoir which depicts of her struggles with depression.
The film follows a rather unlikable protagonist, Lizzie, as she makes the move to Harvard University. She is a talented young writer who has received a prestigious journalism scholarship. Her bright future is juxtaposed with images of her troubled childhood tainted by self harm and countless therapy sessions. During her time at University we see Lizzie plummet further into depression and settle into a cycle of drink, drugs and promiscuity. What sends her over the edge is her writer’s block, rendering her unable to do what she needs to, write.
What makes Lizzie such an unlikable character is her selfish behaviour. It causes distress to everyone who means to most to her, especially her overbearing mother brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Lange. The character of the mother is the key to understanding where some of Lizzie’s troubles came from. While Lizzie’s deadbeat father may have been out of the picture, Lizzie’s mother compensated for his absence by becoming almost too involved as she tries to live vicariously through her daughter’s experiences. She is very proud of her daughter and takes every opportunity to talk and boast about her. Although Jessica Lange’s character is the route of Lizzie’s problems, the audience sees her meddling is just her way of showing affection to her daughter. When it is revealed just how much her mother is spending in the hope to make her daughter’s troubles go away it makes Lizzie’s outburst at her mother seem that much worse. Lizzie’s narcissism was first seen when she betrays her best friend, Ruby and then again when her mother throws her a birthday party and instead of being thankful, she lashes out at her mother and grandparents. The final straw before her suicide attempt is when she destroys what could have been a promising relationship with Rafe.
Christina Ricci was very important to the success of the film. Prozac Nation was a passion project for Ricci, she was also an executive producer and had influence on the screenplay, sacking the first screen writer. She was careful not to cross the line of her portrayal of Wurtzel by being overly dramatic and Ricci succeeded in the difficult task of finding the endearing qualities in such a complex and misunderstood character.
Prozac Nation’s key theme is Depression, as it is an exploration of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s struggles with mental illness but the film is also made with a backdrop of drug abuse and the importance of family values and relationships. Each of the themes feed into one another as the route of her depression is her poor relationship with her father and this fuels her drug abuse which worsens her situation.
Depression is a difficult theme to explore in film. It doesn’t manifest itself in a way that can be seen. So the task of the filmmaker making a film about the feelings experienced by Lizzie was a tough one. Instead of simply showing what she does as a result of her illness director, Eric Skjoldbjærg, tries to make viewers understand that she is spinning out of control with use of camera technique. One of the film’s features brought up by the critics was the overuse of flashbacks which leaves the audience somewhat disorientated, however it can be argued that this was just another technique Skjoldbjærg used to engage the audience and keep them in Lizzie’s frame of mind. If the audience had not had first hand experience with depression, either themselves or somebody close to them, it may be difficult for them to empathise with Lizzie and just view her as a vile, unpleasant narcissist.
Although some people do see Lizzie’s character to be an unpleasant, the film doesn’t actually go about vilifying its protagonist. It shows the events unfolding, usually as a result of Lizzie’s actions, accompanied by a voiceover. The voiceover is an effective tool used by the filmmaker to allow the audience to hear Lizzie’s thoughts and her point of view. In some ways her erratic behaviour is often somewhat justified by her monologue. Another reason the voiceover is suitable is that it makes the film even more closely linked to the memoir.
Whilst Christina Ricci’s character tends to scream at the top of her lungs during her onscreen dialogue, the tone of the voiceover is more sombre. This makes the audience realise that although Lizzie is acting out, this is not a reflection of inner feelings.
The film’s cinematography is very different from the other works of the director. The story lines of Skjoldbjærg’s films are generally quite dark and often morbid but the images in these films differ from that of ‘Prozac Nation’ as they’re grittier, darker with a lot of blue tones. The shots in ‘Prozac Nation’, feature a lot of pastel colours amongst muted tones, particularly pale pink and grey with low contrast, naturalistic lighting.
Whilst there are certainly flaws in the production, such as significant parts of the narrative, such as her childhood and teen years, being missing, Prozac Nation is a beautifully shot insight to the troubled mind of a young depressed girl. While the film accurately depicts Elizabeth Wurtzel’s personal struggles it doesn’t pick up on the author’s examination of ‘depression culture’ until the very end. Perhaps it was for this reason Wurtzel didn’t respond well to the film herself, she even referred to it as being ‘horrible’. If you take the film for what it is, a microcosm of today’s culture it is a very enjoyable film.