Last week I was reading a blog post about tropes for women’s characters in film, particularly the Sexy Tragic Muse. The author listed a few examples I agreed with, like Angelina Jolie in Gia. But then said
The Sexy Tragic Muse is Joon in Benny & Joon, a mentally ill woman who, to paraphrase a wonderful review by Carleen Tibbets, turns out not to need professional help so much as she needs a boyfriend.
I couldn’t disagree more and have to wonder if the author has seen the movie. So here is my spoiler-riffic post about Benny and Joon and why I love it.
Joon is a young woman played by Mary Stewart Masterson who is diagnosed with the amorphous “mentally ill”. She lives with her older brother Benny, a mechanic and shop owner played by Aidan Quinn.
Both their lives are small. Joon spends most of her time at home painting and fighting with the housekeepers her brother hires to watch her. Benny goes to work and cares for his sister but doesn’t feel free to have a social life.
Joon’s doctor recommends a group home for Joon. The doctor thinks Joon might do better with her peers, and might be capable of holding a part-time job with support from the group home. Benny doesn’t want to warehouse his sister and points out “She hates her peers.”
The cousin of one of Benny’s friends Sam comes to stay with them. He’s a semi-literate oddball played by Johnny Depp. He climbs trees, wears clothes from another era, and makes grilled cheese sandwiches using a clothing iron. He’s a socially awkward movie buff who struggles to fill out a job application.
Joon and Sam grow close. She helps him write a letter home to his mother and teaches him how to paint. Sam and Joon awkwardly fall in love and make love. When Benny learns their house guest has slept with his mentally ill sister, he throws Sam out. Benny can’t conceive of this being consensual or right, just taking advantage of his sick sister.
Joon tries to run away with Sam. They board a bus together. The stress – of running, of fighting with her brother – is too much for Joon and the voices in her head cause her to hit herself. Sam gets the driver to stop the bus. Joon is committed to the hospital where her doctor works.
Joon feels trapped. She’s never been treated as an adult and fears she never will be. She refuses to accept any visitors, including her brother. Benny realizes that he’s been unfair to Joon and that he’s been making decisions for her that were rightly hers. He and Sam go together to get Joon from the hospital.
The movie ends with Joon and Sam sharing their own apartment and trying to be more self-sufficient. Benny is still a supportive part of their lives. Joon still has her doctor. Benny can begin to live his own life.
This is not a story about a woman who didn’t need professional help. This isn’t a story about a woman who only needs a boyfriend. It’s a story about disabled adults being adults. It’s a story about community support instead of group homes.
Falling in love and having sex may be boring old hat for abled women but disabled women almost never get to see ourselves in film. Certainly a movie where a mentally disabled young woman chooses to consensually sleep with her manic pixie dream boy love interest is almost unheard of.
Getting a boyfriend didn’t solve Joon’s problems. Sam wasn’t enough. The bus scene makes that explicit. Joon needs a support network to live independently, but with that support she can. Her boyfriend, her brother, her doctor, and her friend who manages the apartment she moves to are ALL needed in her life.
I love this movie and probably always will. This is my favorite love story, in large part because romantic love isn’t the whole story, and not all that the main characters need. I see my son in Sam and Joon, in their creative quirks and need for routine. I want my son to have what Joon has: indepence, support, and love.