Brain on Fire is about a rare autoimmune disorder, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. I think the main goal of the movie was to spread awareness about the disease, which it definitely did, so in that area, it was a success. It was also supposed to be Chloe Grace Moretz’s first role as an adult character. While her younger roles definitely show promise, it was definitely new watching her as a fully grown adult. While I personally loved the skill she showed in this movie, it’s understandably a lacking a little.
The movie is based on a memoir by New York Post writer Susannah Cahalan. In the book she recounts the terrifying experience in detail even though her recollection of that time was largely erased. She even said that she had to use her journalism skills to tell the story right, asking people around her to tell her what they had seen and remembered.
It’s not easy to show real-life events on the big screen because the film must be authentic and feel realistic, but also be entertaining enough to capture the audience’s attention. So props to the director and writers for giving it their best shot.
New York Times reporter, Susannah (Moretz) after getting her supposedly ‘dream job’ begins experiencing strange things. She loses focus, goes into trances, is fatigued and so on. She’s plagued with seizures and starts becoming delusional. As her condition goes from bad to worse, she’s taken to various doctors and leaves to stay with her divorced mum. The doctors give her a plethora of diagnoses and each prescribes a set of pills that don’t have any effect. She becomes unstable, likely to snap at anyone or throw a tantrum for no reason.
Towards the end of the movie she’s diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which the doctor describes to her parents’ as her “brain is on fire”. She’s prescribed a treatment after which she makes a slow but complete recovery. Susannah goes back to work and all is well.
Now the events seem to tell the story too quick because we’re scarcely given time to care about Susannah before she begins to show symptoms of the disorder. Also, the diagnosis comes so abruptly that it’s all a little weird. The supporting actors aren’t really developed, so they’re presence seems unnecessary. We’re just not invested in the story enough to feel the characters’ pain as deeply as we should.
What is interesting is how most doctors diagnose her with a mental illness. How an autoimmune disorder manifests that it shows symptoms of schizophrenia is honestly horrifying. The disorder doesn’t even show up on normal scans and MRIs , she’s a perfectly healthy adult according to those. How the disease disguises itself is a beautiful piece of work on nature’s part but it makes the movie feel like a thriller in that sense.
But despite its flaws I did love the movie, I think Chloe did a fantastic job and I would watch the movie again. It’s terrifying, knowing that it’s based on a real person’s experience. Maybe they could have made the script better. Maybe the potential wasn’t fully realized, even so, it’s a really good story and I now know about a disease that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Watch it, it’s honestly fantastic.