Movie Reviews

Review: Brain On Fire

By Tay Yek KeakMovies - 12 May 2017 8:09 PM | Updated 14 May 2017

Review: Brain On Fire

Our Rating

3/5 Stars

PG13
90 min

Throughout this mystery illness drama, you'd probably wonder why nobody suggests calling a priest, monk, shaman or the Vatican hotline for “severely possessed people”.  

I mean, didn't anybody in this movie see The Exorcist?

Chloe Grace Moretz as young hotshot New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan, the real-life afflicted person here, certainly qualifies for emergency exorcism.

This ailment here is really scary; an extremely elusive and rare inflammation of the brain called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, with all the outward horror of uncontrollable schizophrenia at the start and then an eventual fate of living-statue immobility.

Think Girl, Interrupted (1999) before it turns into Awakenings (1990).

She even stands on a table at her office and shouts at her hulking but compassionate editor boss (played by Tyler Perry, writer-director-drag dude of the Madea film series).

You think he's going to fire her, but he simply tells her at first before she turns into a full-blown nutcase, to de-stress by working from home.

Man, this guy should be nominated for Best Boss Of The Year.

That's the problem with this deal – everybody, despite Cahalan's extreme outbursts and occasional bratty middle-class behaviour, just seems so nice and caring.    

Including her separated dad (Richard Armitage of The Hobbit) and exasperated mom (Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix) and kinda mopey musician-boyfriend, Stephen (Thomas Mann), who strums songs so lame and awful to try to rekindle her, you actually think they make her even madder.  

Everybody, especially the learned doctors, thinks Cahalan has been working too hard and partying too much – the girl looks zonked out like she's into pot – and it's basically nothing to worry about.

Until, that is, she freefalls into One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest territory and everyone – except her angry, protesting parents who insist she can be cured – is ready to check her into a mental institution.      

Here is where the currency of this true story – it happened only a few years ago – probably works against it.  

It's based on a deeply serious, highly informative 2012 autobiography by the real-life Cahalan who recounts the terror she has lived through, and hence, this flick comes in-built with the best intentions to make people aware of this little known medical nuclear bomb.

You can just imagine the driving forces here – the fiesty Grace Moretz, author Cahalan, co-producer Charlize Theron and young Irish director Gerard Barrett – putting their truest, most earnest foot forward in this public-service project.

Maybe a little too earnest and respectful for the film's own good.

The result is something which plays like an extended episode of House, that defunct TV medical series about a doctor-sleuth (Hugh Laurie) solving unknown, baffling illnesses.


With this drama here becoming day-by-regressive-day perfunctory and little insight added to pad up its main character Cahalan (although Grace Moretz clearly looks talented enough to exert more than just spasmic convulsions), Brain On Fire only picks up urgently when the investigative nature of the medical mystery comes into play.

The sole doctor – a real-life neurological expert named Dr Souhel Najjar (Homeland's Navid Negahban) – who doesn't think the girl is going mad after every other doctor has already given up hope comes out of his teaching-post retirement to diagnose and detect like Sherlock Holmes to spring Cahalan out of her dire plight.

He senses that the fight is inside the brain for both of them.    

“I will find you,” he looks intently at the blank, once-vibrant girl who has receded into the abyss of her catatonic prison.

They are words of relief and assurance both for the afflicted gal and the inflicted audience.


Brain On Fire