Boy Interrupted opens with the rain-soaked image of the memorial for Evan Perry, a 15-year-old whose lifelong battle with bipolar disorder ended in suicide on October 2, 2005. After several years of apparent recovery from the devastating effects of the disease, he stepped out of his high-rise bedroom window with only a suicide note hinting at his silently renewed intentions. Fittingly somber, this scene of mourning sets a tone not so much of outright sadness but quiet introspection; here, the very filmmaking process (mounted by Evan’s parents Dana and Hart) proves a writ-large effort to answer the unanswerable and deal with the irreversible.
Poetically shot and assembled, it comes as little surprise that Evan’s parents were already experienced filmmakers at the time of their son’s birth, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of home-movie footage aids incalculably in fleshing out the long-term progression of this case. Most valuable is the afforded opportunity to see Evan “performing” before the camera, both in casual home videos and actual productions he wrote and performed at a young age. The real question, then, is how much of a show did he ultimately learn to put on daily?
As charming and mature as any child his age could conceivably be, Evan threw everyone for the proverbial loop when he began casually talking about death and taking his own life, aware that his absence would be hurtful to others but otherwise unaffected by the implications thereof (as his half-brother describes it, “he lacked emotional shock absorbers”). By the age of seven Evan had already seen a string of therapists and tried numerous medications, to little effect; even a loving family seems to have had no soothing effect on the boy’s fractured psyche. A play written by Evan for school, glimpsed through an old VHS recording, suggests the antithesis to the childhood nihilism made comedic in Annie Hall; in it, a young boy dies, leaving behind friends and siblings to cope with his absence. “He was the most frightening child I ever met,” states a past therapist, as he gazes at a photo of Evan sporting a noose he once devised.
Notably absent, however, is a direct look at Evan’s darker side, as his strongly vocalized obsession with death is conveyed exclusively via interviews with those who experienced it firsthand; save for the aforementioned photograph, only an impromptu comment about a rifle, while on a family vacation, makes its way into the film. At first quizzical, this choice—not unlike Werner Herzog’s decision to leave the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell’s death out of Grizzly Man—ultimately proves wise in that it allows a firmer grasping of the big picture by leaving the most shocking and potentially exploitative material to those personally touched by it.
Not unlike Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, personal anguish here proves emotionally cathartic—a healthy exorcism of the demons that threaten to overtake us all if given the opportunity. “I want to be forgotten,” reads perhaps the most devastating passage of Evan’s suicide note. One gets the sense that, by engaging so bravely with their own pain, the Perrys have already helped to save others from such a fate.