In its delicate approach to complex issues of love, family and mental health there is much to admire and enjoy in Benny and Joon.
Rather than take the depressing route there’s a whimsical, cheery feel to the story of a brother and sister living the day-to-day.
Juniper (Mary Stuart Masterson) has mental health issues and paints skilfully in calmer times; Benjamin (Aidan Quinn), a hard working mechanic is stoically committed to guard over her. Their relationship is one of unconditional, sometimes tumultuous love; they are pretty much all that they have until Joon ‘wins’ Johnny Depp’s eccentric Sam, in a poker game.
Mimicking the silent antics of Buster Keaton and Chaplin, Sam initially appears more insane than the clinical Joon, but as a charismatic showman he swiftly brings joy and freedom to the interdependent lives of the siblings with a variety of brilliant mimes and stunts and a proficiency in domestic choirs. Depp delivers a dazzlingly physical, doe-eyed performance that enchants.
And it’s the liberty and laughs he provides that makes the simple developing love with Joon so warming, unconditionally loving her as much as Benny, in turn giving the devoted brother the new dilemma of the possibility of having something more in his life than just caring for his sister. A new world of fun, freedom and perhaps love that’s alien to him after years of enforced responsibility and purpose.
It’s the underplaying of the everyday of living with ill health that is Benny and Joon’s equal carefree strength and idealistic weakness; it’s mostly a safe affair that’s undoubtedly full of innocent heart but more dramatic and revealing episodes would have said more with only a few mild shows of anxiety; a stressful episode in an aborted ‘escape’ saddens, but it’s a scant glimpse of Joon’s true insanity, a diagnosis left undisclosed.
As with nearly all in Benny and Joon, much of their pasts and feelings remain largely unrevealed, leaving a peripheral feeling and a modest dulling to their predicaments.
The how and the why are minimized in what is likely an effort to make for low maintenance viewing with a brief scene – dialogue free, recounting the death of their parents; there’s also no explanation for Sam’s spectacular dealing mechanism, it just simply is, making Benny and Joon as easy, as easy watching gets.
When dealing with such significant issues so passively with few dramatic episodes, there’s a potential for not caring to invest in the central characters, but honest and sincere performances convey the very real-world possibility that such lives continue every day, unspectacularly. It’s both sad and inspiring, and particularly in Aidan Quinn’s subtle show, admirable to see a loving brother with every right to feel hard done to by life’s cruel hand, remain committed to a childlike sister when institutionalisation would perhaps be a fair course for both, as his life passes him by. When love calls in the shape of Julianne Moore, we see that Benny is just as shy to the workings of the adult world as the childlike lovers.
Masterson plays Joon with an efficiency that feels natural and believable; any urge to overdramatize is delicately and considerately underplayed, allowing greater compassion for and connection to a character whose disorder is otherwise challenging to relate to.
Benny and Joon approaches the complexities of insanity and love by blissfully tiptoeing around it; mostly un-dramatic and happy-go-lucky, it works to present a charming, quirky story of simple love and sacrifice without turgid melodrama but instead, plenty of warmth and heart.