Representation Of Schizophrenia In The Movie Benny & Joon
Benny & Joon is a movie about a pair of siblings living in Spokane, Washington. Benjamin Pearl, the eldest of the two, is the primary caretaker for his sister Juniper “Joon” Pearl, who has schizophrenia. The movie is classified as a romantic comedy, but does a better job of portraying how symptoms of schizophrenia present themselves than most other media, especially considering the fact that it was put out in the early 90.
For one thing, Benny & Joon accurately visualizes the difference between positive symptoms and negative symptoms. Positive symptoms are defined as the addition of things to one’s perception of the world that may or may not be present, such as hallucinations or delusions. Negative symptoms are the opposite: the absence of things that should be there but are not. Examples of negative symptoms include reduced motivation, reduced emotional expressiveness, and social withdrawal. There are three scenes in the film in which Joon has noticeable positive symptoms. The positive symptoms she displays specifically include delusions of grandeur and hallucinations. Delusions of grandeur are a kind of false belief where a person believes themselves to be in a far higher position of power than they are, usually believing they are a prominent religious figure such as Jesus. Hallucinations are sensory experiences, most often auditory or visual, that are not based at all in reality.
Toward the beginning of the film, Joon experiences mild delusions of grandeur at one point when she walks out in the middle of the street, believing herself to be a police officer. Joon also has two instances of experiencing hallucinations, once while she is on the bus and she begins to hear voices that send her into a panic and once off-screen at the start of the film, which results in Benny having to pick her up from the police station. Although represented more subtly than positive symptoms, Benny & Joon also portrays some examples of negative symptoms. Joon is noticeably less expressive than the characters around her, and she does not have any friends of her own, which is what prompts Benny to comment on her apparent friendship with the established love interest of the movie, Sam.
Another way Benny & Joon stands out from other media forms that include schizophrenic characters is that it is a romantic comedy where the character with schizophrenia is not only one of the main love interests but her mental illness is not automatically cured by romance. In many cases, schizophrenia and its symptoms are either confused with having multiple personalities like in Total Recall and Psycho or used as an excuse for the overwhelmingly violent behaviour and/or homicidal tendencies of the character despite the fact that people with schizophrenia are often more violent toward themselves than anyone else, as is the case in The Visit. This is not the case, however, with Benny & Joon. At no point in the movie is she confused for having dissociative personality disorder, nor does this film perpetuate the stereotype that with enough self-control and support from other people – and medication – any mental disorder can be fixed, even one as severe as schizophrenia. Medication only works in treating about sixty five percent of cases of schizophrenia, and this is reflected in the film. When Joon has a schizophrenic break on a bus, an ambulance is called, but it was not one of those scenes where the paramedics force medication down the person’s throat until they calm down. Instead, they give her a shock blanket and focus their attention on making sure the other passengers from the bus don’t crowd her. While still not perhaps the best representation of how to deal with someone having a psychotic episode, it is far better than violently holding them down and drugging them until they can barely speak. Joon is also never shown to have any truly violent tendencies. During her episode on the bus, she is shown scratching at her arms and pulling on her hair, but she does not lash out. The only mildly destructive tendency she has is that she likes fire, so she leaves candles burning longer than she probably should.
The third thing that sets Benny & Joon noticeably apart from other media with schizophrenic representation is that Joon is not entirely helpless on her own, despite what Benny believes. She reminds her brother of this at multiple instances during the film, saying things like “I can brush my own teeth, Benjamin. Hair, too. ” and “Don’t underestimate the mentally ill; we know how to count”. She is shown cooking, cleaning, painting, and doing the grocery shopping by herself, and although she does not have a steady job, it is implied that she sells her art on the side as a minor form of income. Benny is overprotective and, at times, stifling, but she calls him out for it and he does make some attempts to correct that behaviour. Overall, it was well played out and well written, though there was one noticeable flaw.
The only thing that is concerning about Benny & Joon and its representation of schizophrenia is that for the majority of the movie the only ‘solution’ to Joon’s mental illness is to put her in a group home specifically tailored for people with mental illness and leave her there. Joon’s psychiatrist proposes the move at the beginning of the film, claiming that Benny is having a difficult time dealing with Joon and that it would be better for them both if she was taken out of Benny’s care and placed in the group home. However, it is shown multiple times that large crowds of strangers put Joon on edge and that she doesn’t do well with change – at one point, Sam organizes the kitchen and it severely upsets Joon – so the fact that they considered moving her to an unfamiliar environment with a large group of strangers a way to help her is concerning.
For the most part, however, Benny & Joon does a good job of representing schizophrenia and its symptoms in a way that doesn’t increase stigma against the mental illness or the people afflicted with it, which is a rarity even now and practically unheard of in movies made in the 1990s. Although not perfect, Benny & Joon is a good place to start with dismantling the number of stereotypes and stigmas that media often perpetrates when it comes to mental illness, especially ones like schizophrenia that have been used so heavily as scare tactics in the past.
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