Nicole Dutton, Pharmacy Intern
Western New England University
Corey Scheer, RPh, PharmD, BCPP
Clinical Assistant Professor
Western New England University
The 1993 movie Benny and Joon tells the story of adult siblings, Benny and his sister Joon. Joon lives with Benny due to her mental illness, which is not specifically identified in the film. Benny goes to great lengths to look after Joon and arrange for housekeepers to be home with her while he is at work. In the beginning of the film, the current housekeeper quits due to Joon’s erratic behavior. One night when Benny brings Joon along to his friend’s house where he plays poker, Joon joins the card game and loses a bet. As part of the bet, Joon and Benny have acquired a roommate - his friend’s cousin, Sam. Although feeling uneasy at first about the addition of this eccentric individual to his home, Benny eventually realizes that Sam can stay home and look after Joon while he is at work. With Joon and Sam’s similar quirky characteristics, the two are fast friends and become very close, which eventually blossoms into a romance. The relationship between Joon and Sam represents an expansion in Joon’s support network beyond her brother Benny. This increase in support will eventually allow Joon to move out of her brother’s house, an important step in her recovery. Towards the end of the movie, Sam tells Benny that he and Joon are in love and Benny throws Sam out of the house. This causes a heated argument between Benny and Joon, and later that night Sam and Joon run away on a bus. It is on this bus ride that Joon becomes agitated and appears to be experiencing auditory hallucinations. This incident results in Joon’s hospitalization. Joon initially refuses to see Benny while she is in the hospital so Sam helps Benny sneak in to visit her. This is when Benny realizes that Joon needs to be in charge of her own decisions and agrees to allow her to move into her own apartment instead of the group home that he had been considering.
Throughout the film, Joon’s mental illness is referenced, but a specific diagnosis is never mentioned. Although at one point Benny tells Joon’s psychiatrist that they have been managing living together for twelve years, it is still unclear as to when the onset of Joon’s symptoms started. Whether the twelve years encompasses all of the time since their parent’s death, or just the time since Joon’s symptoms appeared is not noted. Many of Joon’s symptoms would be typical of a psychotic disorder including delusions, auditory hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, and blunted affect. As Joon’s mental illness was never explored in depth, the viewer is free to explore the possibility of different diagnoses. Joon exhibits disorganized behavior when she is seen directing traffic in a busy intersection with a ping pong racket while wearing a snorkeling mask. Joon appears to be responding to internal stimuli while riding the bus towards the end of the film. In any scene where Joon was shown riding in a car, she was shown wearing a helmet. This behavior may be a coping mechanism for Joon as she witnessed her parents’ car accident and death while she was growing up, and could indicate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In several scenes, Joon’s fixation on cleanliness, order, and her daily routine were emphasized indicating a possible developmental disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. During the movie, when someone cleaned the house, Joon would panic when things were moved from their original positions. Benny tells Sam when he first comes to live with them not to interrupt Joon’s routine because “her routine is everything to her”. While the viewer can only speculate as to what mental illness Joon may be experiencing, her character is portrayed in a realistic way in the sense that presentation varies per individual and does not always fit a cookie-cutter mold of the diagnostic criteria. In addition, many mental illnesses frequently align with other psychiatric comorbidities which may be a possibility for Joon.
The struggle that those with mental illness and their caregivers face regarding autonomy in decision-making is also portrayed in Benny and Joon. Throughout the film, Benny has private discussions with Joon’s psychiatrist about the possibility of admitting Joon to a group home. While a group home may be the best option for some patients, it is clear in the film that this was not something that Joon wanted. Throughout the film, it is emphasized that Benny is a loving caregiver and makes all decisions in what he believes to be Joon’s best interest. However, it is only at the end of the movie that Benny consults Joon about where she would like to live and allows her to have autonomy over her own decisions. Due to the addition of Sam to Joon’s support network, Benny may have finally realized that Joon was capable of making her own decisions and able to live safely somewhere other than in Benny’s house.
The film Benny and Joon portrays Joon’s mental illness in a multifaceted way, highlighting the fact that the presentation of mental illness is highly individualized. It allows the viewers to recognize the potential for symptom overlap between other mental illnesses as well as emphasizing the patients’ role in his or her own treatment plan. Facing difficult decisions regarding a patient’s autonomy is common for caregivers of those with mental illness, as Benny displayed in the film. As each patient’s status is different, individualizing their own treatment plan needs to be considered and agreed upon. The importance of a strong support network in mental illness recovery was emphasized through Joon’s relationship with Sam. This eventually laid the foundation that allowed her to move into her own apartment. When Sam first came to live with Benny, he said that Joon seemed pretty normal and inquired about how sick she really was. This was an important point in the film because it encouraged Benny to stop seeing Joon as “sick” and to think of her more as just a normal person with normal human needs, the way Sam viewed her. The story allows viewers to consider a more realistic interpretation of living with mental illness and also helps to visualize a positive outlook on recovery with individualized care, a strong support network, and decision-making autonomy from the individual.