Prozac Nation was the film that made me tell someone I was depressed
I never imagined when I scanned the shelves at a jilted wing of my university library for Elizabeth Wurtzel's autobiography Prozac Nation that, a little more than two years later, my inbox would ping with a personal note from the author herself. No, this story doesn't start at the library – at that time I was depressed. I probably, in my lethargic death march, just googled "good movies about depression". Prozac Nation was likely the first hit in a long line of search results. There are too many movies about it that aren't about 'it' – depression as a thing. Instead, depression is put down as a quirky side effect, a 'trait' designed to make the character more pitiful or abject. This is not that. And as someone who refuses to read the book before the movie, I thought Erik Skjoldbjærg's cinematic equivalent of a Xanax would be a manageable place to start.
The timeline follows thusly: I watched the movie, read the book, then became short-term pen pals with Elizabeth Wurtzel.
The film is a hell-ride, but I was totally right. It's a lethal combination of beauty, brains and narcissism masquerading as a human grenade. It's based on Wurtzel's Generation X bestseller that describes depression with unparalleled accuracy and prose sharper than a razor blade. While this is unfortunately one of those annoying cases where the book is better than its adaptation, don't let that stop you from watching. Five minutes in, you'll realise you can't look away. It's like witnessing the most bewitching car crash you can fathom.
Jessica Lange is in it, as the official mascot for bad, chain-smoking mums everywhere. Christina Ricci is in it, in the role of reckless Harvard journalism student Lizzie. She gets in on a full-ride scholarship after writing a tell-all account of her parent's divorce forSeventeen magazine. She fabricates an imagined relationship with her deadbeat dad to please their readership. Then she becomes a self-described "beautiful literary freak." What follows is sex, drugs, and Lou Reed concert reviews for her school paper, TheHarvard Crimson. However, Lizzie is one of those death-or-glory people, one whose efforts end up Pyrrhic at best. Predictably, all her relationships implode because she's literally a horrible cunt suffering from a very real mental illness. Ricci yanks her hair, screams at friends, her face streaked with tears when her peers aren't accommodating enough or try to offer unwanted help or simply exist near her. When they don't succumb to her lashes and outbursts, her eruptions only intensify. She's asking for help but rebuffs its advances.
Ricci narrates the film in her seductive vocal fry, and while most voiceovers can be grating, this is her character's salvation. It's like Wednesday Addams 2.0. Paired with Wurtzel's potent words, the effect is intoxicating: "Hemingway has his classic moment inThe Sun Also Rises when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt. All he can say is, 'Gradually, then suddenly.' That's how depression hits. You wake up one morning, afraid that you're gonna live." Everything she says could be a tattoo, but it's her sarky aphorisms that make her so relatable.
The only reason Ricci likely lost out on any Oscar nomination that year for her lung-stabbing performance is because the film was never released in the States. Due to some executive-level bullshit, the distributor (Miramax) pawned it off on some channel called Starz! four years later. It was released in the director's home country of Norway to an audience of tens. That brought about the ironic New York Times headline, "For Author of 'Prozac Nation,' Delayed Film Is a Downer". One journalist mused that its non-existence was because it "doesn't have a traditional dramatic structure, in terms of a clear, unqualified ending." Read into that what you will, but having seen the ending, it's not unqualified in the least.
In comparison to the multitude of depressing films out there, Prozac Nation is wildly entertaining, but only if you get off on watching people self-destruct. (See also: Sarah Silverman's I Smile Back). When she claims her best friend Ruby (young Michelle Williams) doesn't know what it's like to truly love someone, Lizzie finally gets what's coming to her. A verbal bitch slap. Ruby, choking back tears, retorts with one of the best on-screen truth servings of all time, saying, "I'm not crying because you're mean. I'm crying because I can't imagine how incredibly painful it must be to be you."
At this point in the movie, it's impossible not to hate Lizzie. She's the devil incarnate, catering only to her own whims and edging her friends and lovers out. It forces you to consider the worst: hey, people will possibly, eventually give up on you. Maybe not now, but getting out of bed in the morning is something only you can do for yourself. It's sobering. The other thing I noticed was how high-functioning her character was. If the process of watching and rewatching this movie was some fucked up journey of self-diagnosis, if I really were depressed, then I had found what I was looking for. It was time to get help before I became a human sinkhole.
So here I was, one day after I'd inhaled the movie and it left me gasping for air, standing in the library, thumbing through titles like How to Think Straight About Psychology. I chuckled to myself that they had relegated a popular work of fiction like Prozac Nation to a library pregnant with ancient, academic textbooks. I checked it out, huffed and sobbed through the chapters. I rewatched the film, drinking in the dialogue. I made a decision to call my parents and told them that I wasn't happy.
I quit uni a semester before graduation and moved back home. One year and a shitty telemarketing job later, I landed a different job where a very small part included arranging a Reddit 'Ask Me Anything' with the Dame of Depression herself, Elizabeth Wurtzel. So I emailed her. She responded. We exchanged pleasantries, and I tried to tell her how much she meant to me in so many words. She told me about her new found work as a lawyer and the weird legal cases she'd been working on. I can't remember all the stuff we spoke about because, like an idiot, I never saved the emails. Now they're long gone, like all my feelings of depression – a faint memory of a random interaction with someone who I may have unknowingly appointed to save me.
Originally published on Vice