Movies I Love: Benny & Joon (1993)

Long-suffering car mechanic Benny (Aidan Quinn) has been taking care of his mentally ill sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) since their parents died in a car accident when they were young.  When Joon loses a bet in a poker game, they end up with a virtual stranger on their couch.  Sam (Johnny Depp) is strange, with an affectation for Buster Keaton impersonations and a tendency to be quite quiet.  Joon and Sam find themselves drawn to each other, but Benny has serious doubts about their chances of making it alone in the real world.

An often-overlooked gem of a movie from the early 90s, Benny & Joon has been a favorite of mine for years.  The movie’s premise–a schizophrenic woman falling in love with a functionally-illiterate man who often lives in a world of his own–threatens to be way too quirky to work, and yet it does, for a number of reasons.  One of these reasons is that the film takes such care with its characters that it never feels overwhelming or overly-didactic.  Another, bigger reason is that the cast is so devoted to their roles.  This is a very talented cast, and the fact that each actor commits so fully to their roles helps propel the film from run-of-the-mill to something really enjoyable.

Depp’s Sam could easily become a caricature of himself, but he doesn’t.  Sam is quiet, a little mysterious, and maybe crazy.  He lives in a world of film and often incorporates bits from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films into his life (the scene in the park is iconic).  Depp handles Sam with care and aplomb, and his ability to convey so much through facial expressions works especially well here.  Masterson handles Joon’s schizophrenia with a grace that is remarkable.  Although there are ample opportunities for Joon’s character to succumb to cliches and manipulations, Masterson resists them and crafts a character who is funny, smart, and engaging.  Quinn’s Benny often has to play the straight character to the other two leads, but he manages to convey his love for his sister and devotion to her care in every scene.

There are liberties that the film takes with the truth, of course.  When the film was released, it was marketed as a quirky romantic comedy (there was nary a mention of Joon’s illness).  There’s also the fact that Benny & Joon skirts the issue of Joon’s schizophrenia in the long run, choosing instead to hint at the concept that love can cure all.  Despite all this, the movie’s charm and the cast’s talent make it easy to ignore and just enjoy it.

The movie is currently available to stream instantly on Netflix.  It also boasts Oliver Platt, Julianne Moore, and Dan Hedaya as supporting cast members.  If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance.  I love this film hardcore.

Fun fact: Depp did all his own stunts for the film, including the tumbling in the park.

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