As the sister and co-guardian of an adult man with autism, I am equally fascinated and repelled by movies that have disabled characters at their center. I loved Rain Man when I was a kid, and I still love Dustin Hoffman’s performance in that film, but I can’t watch another movie that puts a disabled character in the role of “mentor”: the disadvantaged person who teaches the neurotypical person how to live life to the fullest.
Benny and Joon is unique in that it creates a third character, a Buster Keaton-esque quirky man named Sam (Johnny Depp), to teach both the able-minded sibling Benny (Aidan Quinn) and his mentally ill sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) how to live life to the fullest. He’s the Manic Pixie Dream Guy, if you will.
When I first saw this movie, I was still in the middle of my huge Johnny Depp crush. I’ve since gotten over it, but the movie still holds a special place in my heart. I love Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon. The script never names the mental illness she struggles with, and the film as written could easily show Joon as a collection of QUIRKY! character traits that everyone finds highly amusing, but Masterson gives Joon sympathy and humanity. I watch her in the film and all I want to do is take care of her, or help her find a way to take care of herself. The effect of her performance in this film is less about great line deliveries and more about facial expressions and quiet moments, and how she shows Joon’s natural state of tension and stress with the way she gradually lets herself go and opens herself to a man who may just be weird and off-key enough to understand her.