Johnny Depp: the man, the legend. From Alice in Wonderland to Dark Shadows to Mortdecai, it seems like all you have to do to sell a movie anymore is to put the man’s name on it. But before all those films, before Pirates, and even without Tim Burton, Depp was in a film that confirmed his status as a world-class actor that can do just about anything: Benny & Joon.
Benny & Joon is a quirky film if ever there was one. Benny is a mechanic who’s struggling to make it from day to day. His job is stressful and he can’t keep a housekeeper, because his mentally ill sister keeps running them off. Taking care of Joon is quite a chore, and she quickly proves that she can’t be left alone. Joon’s psychiatrist is pressuring him to put her in a home, and he doesn’t want to do that, but he doesn’t know what else to do. That’s when one of his poker buddies pawns off his troublesome cousin as a bet.
That’s when Sam (Depp) enters. He’s an oddball, who enjoys music, dancing, and, err, well, being strange. He models himself after silent film actor Buster Keaton, and even acts out some of his comical sequences in a couple of scenes that showcase Depp’s brilliance like no other film can. Benny first takes him back to his house begrudgingly and angrily, but as time goes on, and Joon takes a liking to him, he decides that this just might be the answer that he’s been looking for.
The first thing that jumped out to me while watching this film is Depp’s sheer brilliance. His body movements, facial expressions, and all-around performance convey a singularity of character that is rare to see in any film. Add to that his chemistry with Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), not to mention a wonderful performance by Julianne Moore as Benny’s love interest and the film really is a joy to watch.
The reason I love the film so much goes deeper than that, though. The film’s depth is something that you just don’t get very often. It has some of the classic themes of quirky dramas, such as the strained relationship between grown siblings and the struggle for Benny to balance his responsibilities with having his own wishes and dreams, but this one takes it a step further. It shows that despite whatever preconceived notions we may have, those identified as mentally ill are not doomed to live a poor quality of life. It begs us to realize, despite whatever biases we may have, they are people too.
Psalm 139 talks about how God forms people (David specifically, in the passage) in the womb. In that passage is the verse “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Every statement that is made in that passage about how God creates people can be said of Joon. And although Benny is tempted to treat her like a dumb, broken child, that’s not what she is. Sam recognizes that. He sees past the surface-level box of “mentally ill” and “sick” and “broken” to see her for what she really is: a person, beautiful as she is.
All things considered, it’s really hard to find something to take issue with in this film. I must point out, as one reviewing it from a Christian perspective, that there is a scene of insinuated sex, and some mild language. But when I look at the message of the film, affirming the beauty of all God-given life, and the long-overdue humanization of those we tend to look down on as being imperfect, I must say that the film affected me in ways that not many films do. Now, as I meet those that might be like Joon, I’m reminded of Sam’s words to Benny:
“You know, it seems to me that, I mean, except for being a little mentally ill, she’s pretty normal.”
This review was originally posted at Let There Be Movies.