Disabilities Week: The Patronizingly "Adorable" Side of Schizophrenia in ‘Benny & Joon’

Movie poster for Benny & Joon

This is a guest review by Carleen Tibbetts.
When Bitch Flicks put out the call for reviews regarding the portrayal of “disabled” women, I had a mixed reaction. Most of the suggested films and TV series deal with both physical disabilities and mental illness, but there’s far greater stigma attached to anything psychological, especially when women are involved. The words “crazy” and “insane” get thrown around far too often and get a lot of mileage when it comes to women. It’s easy and dismissive to tell a woman her “craziness” is just a byproduct of her gender, and even more callous to tell a woman with a mental illness that she is thus, and seemingly unable to be helped, bettered, et cetera.
Jeremiah Chechlik’s 1993 film, Benny & Joon is the story of Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), a twenty-something artist who lives under the care of her older brother, Benny (Aidan Quinn). Benny works full-time as an auto mechanic and has hired a string of “housekeepers,” as he calls them, to keep an eye on Joon during the day. When the last caregiver quits after Joon has an outburst, Benny must leave Joon home alone, where she is content to go about her routine that involves painting and making Captain Crunch and peanut butter smoothies. 
Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon and Aidan Quinn as Benny in Benny & Joon
At first, it appears as if Joon is just a bit quirky, or perhaps a stereotypical “temperamental artist.” Aside from the manic rate at which she produces her paintings, her need to adhere to routine, her idiosyncrasies, and her flat mannerisms suggest she might present as Autistic. Her extreme pickiness regarding food would be another indicator of being somewhere on the spectrum when, at one point in the film, she refuses to eat raisins in her tapioca pudding, claiming that they were “humiliated grapes” that “had a their life stolen.” When she leaves the house with a ping-pong paddle and scuba mask to direct traffic, however, this is more characteristic of a schizophrenic or bipolar episode.
Benny knows he can’t leave her unsupervised, but he’s torn about how to handle the situation. Joon’s psychiatrist suggests he place Joon in a group home that would enable her to socialize and perhaps even get a part-time job. His initial reaction is extremely defensive, and explaining that he is Joon’s only family, that he’s always cared for her, and that he’s not “farming her out.” Glimpses of Joon’s medical information (note the screen shots) don’t even indicate what condition or disorder she has been diagnosed with. All we know is that she is on some form of medication, and perhaps it isn’t working too well given her tantrums and erratic behavior. Joon tells Benny not to “underestimate the mentally ill,” yet he continuously undercuts her, treats her like a child, limits her autonomy and decision-making capacities. Further, Benny uses his situation with Joon as a convenient excuse to avoid any kind of romantic entanglements or committed relationships. Potential love interest waitress/apartment manager Ruthie (Julianne Moore) is extremely patient and understanding in her interactions with Joon, yet Benny initially shies away from anything too serious, claiming his life is too complicated and that there really isn’t any room for a woman in his life other than his sister. 
Joon’s medical intake form
Another part of Joon’s routine involves her tagging along to Benny’s regular poker nights with several friends. One night when she fills in for him, she ends up “winning” Sam (Johnny Depp), the barely literate, Buster Keaton-obsessed cousin of one of Benny’s friends. Benny agrees to take Sam in for an unspecified amount of time, hoping that Sam could take over “housekeeper” duties and babysit Joon. It really is a wonder that Benny has apparently taken care of her since they were teenagers. He’s so emotionally well-equipped! His thinking is so clear! He doesn’t need to take advice from mental health professionals! He can have an adorable vagabond with no credentials look after Joon!
Sam’s a different sort of socially awkward. He has a penchant for horrible slasher films, which he memorizes word for word, and has an almost sixth sense when it comes to knowing film trivia. It’s as if his brain functions like the IMDb database. Perhaps he’s somewhere on the spectrum. He also has a charming little Chaplinesque physical comedy routine going, complete with top hat, baggy trousers, and cane. Benny’s so impressed he tries to get Sam an agent to book him in comedy clubs. Sam’s blissful naivete serves as a complete counter to put-upon, worry-wart Benny. His presence in the house has a calming effect on Joon, and her whole demeanor changes. She’s met someone who “gets” her. Sam and Joon are kindred spirits. Sam gives Joon a sense of companionship and joy she’s been lacking for most of her adult life. Sam allows Joon to ease up on her routine, takes her out of the house (where Benny keeps her trapped and isolated), running little errands, socializing, basically integrating her into society in little baby steps. 
Joon directs traffic with a ping pong paddle
So, for a short time everything is hunky dory. Benny can work without worrying about Joon; he can date a woman who doesn’t demand he put her emotional needs before his responsibilities to his sister; Sam gets a job at a video store; and he and Joon begin to know each other. Biblically. When they break the news to Benny, it sends him into a rage. He tells Sam to get out of the house (being homeless, he just ends up living in a tree in their front yard…), and tells Joon he wants her to live in the group home. He turns all protector father figure, and Joon rebels as would any teenage girl. She tells Benny he wants to keep her sick, doesn’t want her to be happy, and the moment she is left alone, she sneaks out of the house and runs off with Sam.
The two quirky lovebirds get on a bus bound for “anywhere but here,” when Joon starts having an extreme anxiety attack. She starts crying and screaming, and her episode forces the driver to get everyone off the bus and call the paramedics. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Sam watches Joon pace the bus and scream until the paramedics escort her off and take her to a psych ward. She refuses to see anyone, yet Benny and Sam manage to break into the ward. Benny agrees not to put Joon in a group home but have her live in her own apartment (conveniently managed by his now-girlfriend, Ruthie) with Sam. EVERYTHING IS SUPER AWESOME FUN TIME! LOOK HOW ADORABLE SCHIZOPHRENIA CAN BE! The credits roll with Sam and Joon making little grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron! Yes! They’re going to make it on his video store wages and illiteracy, and she’s presumed jobless and in the care of another male authority figure! She doesn’t need professional treatment! She just needs a boyfriend! 
Benny watches Joon paint
Here is where the criticism beings … Benny & Joon deals far more with Benny’s “unfortunate” situation of having to care for his sister than it does with Joon herself. Yes, although it does speak to Joon’s creativity, her spirit, etc., it doesn’t address the fact that Benny’s kept her infantilized most of her adult life. It was suggested that Benny place her in a home where she’d be supervised and be able to look for work, yet we don’t know if Joon has a history of trying to unsuccessfully hold down jobs, or if Benny prevented her from ever trying to be responsible and autonomous in the first place. I can’t even begin to address his ridiculous decision to have Joon babysat by a series of non-credentialed “houskeepers” instead of attempting to integrate her into society. I wonder if he was granted power of attorney, legal guardianship, etc. I find it hard to believe that in a situation like that, he was allowed to care for Joon since they were teenagers. How did Social Services not step in at any point? How was he not charged with abandonment and neglect? 
Benny sneaks in to see Joon at the mental hospital
This movie is less about Joon herself than it is about her in relation to the men in her life. Yes, at the close it gives the impression that she’s going to be happy and productive but only under close watch of her boyfriend, her brother, and her brother’s girlfriend. Fine, maybe she doesn’t need to live in a group home, but it’s important that she go to some form of therapy and see positive examples of highly-functioning schizophrenics, and this is never brought up in the film! She can’t just have medication thrown at her and not pair it with any sort of cognitive and behavioral therapy. Making grilled cheese sandwiches with Johnny Depp doesn’t count.
When I searched for images to include in the piece in addition to the screen shots I took, the movie poster images I came across presented another issue: Joon herself is sidelined and literally sandwiched between the two men in her life: her lover and her brother. Alternate posters depict Johnny Depp alone on a stool. In fact, the Google image search yields more pictures of Johnny Depp than anything else! Where is Joon in all of this? The screen time given to Depp and all his quirky little gimmicks far outweighs scenes that focus on Joon’s interests, her paintings, etc. She’s a talented artist, yet Benny is more concerned with getting Sam work than he is with getting Joon’s art out in the world or enrolling her in an art therapy program, which would have been ideal for her. 
Sam and Joon make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron
There is NOTHING adorable about mental illness. I take huge issue with this film. It trivializes and downplays a serious, crippling disorder. As a woman who was diagnosed bipolar roughly ten years ago and who has been hospitalized, watching scenes in which paramedics tranquilize and forcibly escort a woman to a psychiatric ward is particularly painful and all-too familiar. You cannot have your family members spring you from a psych ward. You cannot check in for a staycation and leave when you feel like it. You are there until the mental health professionals get your cocktail of meds just right, bring you back to a functioning level, and deem you fit for release. In this case, I would think Joon’s psychiatrist would not want to release her into the care of two men who broke into her room and who flagrantly disregarded her professional advice in the first place.
Living with mental illness means constantly having your state of mind questioned. It means family members and long-term friends not being able to understand or relate to your struggles, your episodes. This often leads to strained romantic relationships where genetics are even called into question. Say Joon and Sam keep going strong. If they chose to have children, is she capable of being a parent? Could she stay off her meds during her pregnancy without having another episode? My ex’s parents asked me at one point in our eight-year relationship if I could even have children, because they wanted grandkids in the worst way. It was one of the most callous, insensitive, and derogatory things anyone had ever said to me in relationship to my disorder. Obviously, the mentally “ill” are capable of having children, or else these conditions would cease to exist. 
Joon has a panic attack on the bus
Benny & Joon, despite all its charm and whimsy, really glosses over a serious, potentially debilitating condition. I’m not saying it doesn’t have its delightful moments, but it fails to realistically address Joon’s history or possible outcomes for her future well-being. Joon is defined in by the men in her life, and as a result, is stifled, crippled, and unable to break out on her own. She needs to be taken care of, coddled. Apparently, to quote the Proclaimers theme song that opens and closes the film, Joon just needs a man to fall down at her door. Yes, it’s Hollywood, and we all want happy endings, but the underlying message that all Joon really needs is a stable romantic relationship rather than a stable relationship with herself, especially in relation to functioning in the outside world, is completely misguided.


Carleen Tibbetts lives in Oakland and edits at Similar:Peaks:: Her work has appeared in kill author, Word Riot, Metazen, Monkeybicycle, Coconut, H_NGM_N, horse less press, Boog City, The Rumpus, HTMLGIANT, and elsewhere.

8 Comments

  • Posted July 23, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Posting this for the whole “disabilities week”–this was published in the 80s, so very dated… but also amazing since it goes back to the veritable dawn of time: http://www.amazon.com/Disability-Drama-Television-Lauri-Klobas/dp/0899503098 I am disappointed that its so obscure, but I guess that’s standard.

    CHECK IT OUT PEOPLE, one of the best analysis about disability-presentation you will EVER read. Maybe THE best. The used copies are staggeringly expensive, but at least some are available. If this subject interests you or you are writing more about disability-portrayals, this is REQUIRED READING. I exchanged correspondence w/Klobas a long time ago, and apparently this started as ‘covering a few TV shows’, and turned into this comprehensive guide to movies and TV.

  • Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    This film bothered me intensely when I saw it (back in the day). You have wonderfully articulated all the reasons why.

  • Sinew Stew
    Posted October 24, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m on the spectrum, have been hospitalized etc. When I was a kid I really liked this movie because it was one of the few media representations of people like ourselves in a, all-be-it simplified, romantic relationship. Yes, it’s trite and unrealistic but it was something to relate to at a time when there was very little talk of independence and an overabundance of pity.

  • Albert Giesbrecht
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    That’s an interesting point you made about Joon having children; it never occurred to me that Joon had any interest in being a mother.

    It is a sad fact that in Canada, women with mental problems were sterilized up until the early ’70’s. Perhaps that’s what your in-laws were thinking of when they asked you that question?

  • Ellen Mott
    Posted December 3, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Good review; Truthful and real, as the subject of the movie is anything but. I really appreciated reading this. I was looking for another intelligent person who shared my opinions about this film, completely. I also have lived with bipolar disorder, diagnosed twenty years ago, at age 16. I am 36 now, and I am proud to say I have been well, for five years, finding success with therapy and Seroquel. It has been a tough road, being not only very stigmatized because I have bipolar, but being female + having bipolar disorder. I live in Grand Rapids, MI. Keep up the good work with your writing, and career! I am a feminist, and I want to be a writer. Some day, I will get to it. Thank you for your contributions, and keep writing!!!

  • Sam berube
    Posted December 16, 2015 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Honestly, you’re overreacting.
    I had a family member with schizophrenia actually.
    And another that died from Alzheimer’s.
    It’s a good movie.
    Stop trying to make it into a bad thing.
    You’re literally getting angry over absolutely nothing.
    It’s quite rude, your reaction.
    The movie, in my perspective definitely was cute.
    But guess what.
    Its was showing that people with disorders like this CAN live a normal life.
    She ended up living on her own with Sam in the end..
    You blew the entire thing out of proportion, and just do not discredit the movie any further, because it is NOT your say.
    Thanks.
    Especially being that you are BIPOLAR and not schizophrenic.
    My father is actually bipolar, and believe me it is NOTHING as bad as schizophrenia.
    Please.
    You are so disrespectful.

  • Posted January 7, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    This is a very good review/critique. I show this movie in the psych 101 I teach. I chose Benny & Joon precisely for the reasons you mention about it being patriarchal, the absence of real mental health professionals, and the way we sometimes “need to keep others sick.” It leads to great class discussions about how the media distorts reality.

    • Darci Mcfaul
      Posted March 25, 2017 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      Hello, My name is Darci and i am in a Psych A111 Class right now and my next and last paper is supposed to be off a movie involving mental illness and to talk about whether it is accurate inaccurate etc. I’m wanting to get it done early in order to keep up in my grades and classes and was wondering if you would like to talk to me more and maybe help influence my paper in a good direction. Thank you

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