Benny & Joon (1993): United States – directed by Jeremiah S. Checkik
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains profanity and some mild sexual content, mature themes
Some folks are serious, some folks are silly, and some are just a little mentally ill. So goes the threesome at the core of Benny & Joon, in a slight but enjoyable story full of fun and quirky moments. And, although the message is dubious and vague, the primary draw for most audiences will be the antics of Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson.
Masterson plays Juniper Pearl, a young woman in a small town in middle America. Her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn) takes care of her, for she is afflicted with an unannounced mental illness resembling schizophrenia. By day Benny runs a car repair shop, hiring a caretaker to watch out for Joon, who is occasionally given to fits of setting things on fire. Joon exhibits a great deal of odd behavior and likes to finger paint and create strange milkshakes. Their lives are complicated, especially considering that Benny must juggle work and Joon, leaving little time for a personal life.
Their lives are about to become even more complex when Joon loses a high-stakes poker game with some of Benny’s friends. They are forced to take in the winning hand’s cousin, a strange and silly boy who cannot read or write. Sam (Depp) has trouble with normal relationships, preferring to become absorbed in movies. He is a cinephile that lives the characters he sees in the movies, especially Keaton, Chaplin, and a brief touch of Harold Lloyd.
Sam comes to live with the siblings and proves to be an interesting match for Joon. Together they help Benny become involved with a server at a local diner (Julianne Moore), though he is reticent due to his other duties. All things considered, the four of them lead a happy existence, though Joon’s illness places considerable strain on their relationships and respective romances.
The most interesting aspect of Benny & Joon rests in the interactions among the three primary characters. Benny is serious, and knows he is serious, but does not feel he can be anything but, given his commitment to caring for Joon. Joon herself finds moments of happiness in her routines and her painting, though she is tormented by the knowledge of her illness. She is not dim-witted or unaware of what’s going on around her, but knowing that she has a problem is an additional burden for her psyche. Sam is not quite as bright, but certainly enjoys life as much. His innocence pervades the silent-film routines he performs, causing his audiences to laugh as they shake their heads at the pitiableness of his situation.
As the film nears its conclusion, certain characters experience changes in their demeanor. The film’s messages are half-hearted, however, and some of them (including allowing a schizophrenic woman to choose what’s best for her life, especially after she gets herself into potentially injurious situations) are downright dubious. As a whole, the filmmakers do not seem to care that their picture contains a message.
I enjoyed the film, and I know many more people who enjoy it far more than I. The relationships are tender and convincing, and some of the quirky moments are delightful in their innocence and oddness. Technically, the film is adequate, with no part of the production drawing undue attention to flaws or shortcomings. Benny & Joon is a slight but enjoyable dramedy, and one that some audiences will enjoy more than others.