If you didn't know better, you might find it hard to believe that the things that happen to young Augusten Burroughs in the film Running with Scissors actually happened -- and yet, they did. The film opens at a pivotal point in Augusten's life: His mother's decline into madness. When your mother is mentally unstable, your father is an emotionally walled-off alcoholic, and the two of them spend most of their time together embroiled in violent fights that end in threats of murder or suicide, it doesn't make for the most stable of childhoods. Augusten, who worships his mother and tries patiently to get the attention of his father, compensates by being a painfully neat child.
He obsesses over his hair being perfectly conditioned and styled, he dresses nattily in jackets and sweater vests, he decorates his mother's dog, Cream, with aluminum foil, and he boils his allowance and then polishes it with silver polish. When you're a kid whose adult support system is out of control, you take your stability where you can find it, and so Augusten carefully controls those things that are within his limited power. After one particularly nasty battle that ends with her husband drunk and bleeding on the kitchen floor, Augusten's mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) enlists the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), for marriage counseling -- not so much, one senses, in a legitimate attempt to save her marriage, as to find outside validation that her husband is the crazy one. Eventually Deirdre and Norman (Alec Baldwin) split, and soon Deirdre is spending almost all her time in therapy with the good doctor. After a while, Deirdre, wholly solipsistic and intent on tapping her inner artist so that she can fulfill what she believes is her destiny -- to be a world-famous poet -- gives up all pretense of even trying to be a mother to her son, and abandons him to Dr. Finch and his family.
Young Augusten's life with his parents was filled with violence, yelling, and emotional withdrawal; his life with the Finches was uncontrolled and chaotic, but at least there he finds a friend in Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), the doctor's younger daughter. Nonetheless, the Finches are not exactly an ordinary family. Imagine this: A beautiful street lined with majestic, dignified, beautifully landscaped homes. And at the end of that street, a ramshackle Victorian with peeling pink paint and a dirt yard, littered with so much junk it looks like a badly organized perpetual yard sale. Inside is no better -- filth and roaches, a kitchen piled high with dirty, crusty dishes and half-eaten food, and a last year's Christmas tree still sitting pathetically in the corner. Presiding over this mess is Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), Dr. Finch's long-suffering wife, and of course, Dr. Finch himself -- a man who has a "masturbatorium" and who believes his poop contains messages from God. If ever the inmates were running the asylum, it was at the Finches house.
Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, channeling shades of The Royal Tennebaums), Dr. Finch's 28-year-old daughter who devotedly worships and works for her father, also lives in the house, and assorted patients come and go after Dr. Finch gives up his office to save money and starts seeing patients at home. For Hope and Natalie, life at the Finch house is as it always has been and always will be: Free of rules, free of direction, and full of the bizarre. This is a house where nobody ever cleans, screaming at each other is encouraged (Dr. Finch believes that most problems are caused by repressed anger), patients frequently become members of the family, and household decisions are made by "Bible dipping" -- kind of a Biblical Magic 8 Ball, where you ask the Bible a question, open to a random page and point to a random word to find your answer. So when 13-year-old Augusten begins a questionable romantic and sexual relationship with Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a 35-year-old schizophrenic with a potential for violence and penchant for teen boys, who also happens to be a patient of Dr. Finch's -- nobody bats an eye. And sadly enough, compared to his relationship with his mom, Augusten's romance with Bookman is about the closest thing to normal in his life.
Annette Bening gives a standout performance here as Augusten's irritatingly self-absorbed mother, Deirdre. Bening captures that subtle gleam of the eye that people get when they are breaking down mentally. Older Augusten, narrating the story, notes that he could always tell when his mother was about to have a breakdown because her eyes get all electric, and Bening captures this perfectly, realizing that it's all about the minute changes to the eyes -- windows to the soul. As a result, her performance is never maudlin or played for cheap laughs.
It's been said that it's harder to write about truth, because some of the craziest stuff that really does happen seems beyond belief when you see it on film, but fans of Burroughs' writing know that he says there is nothing exaggerated in his memoirs -- everything he wrote in Running with Scissors is the truth, at least from his perspective (it would be interesting to hear what his mother, from whom he has long been estranged, thinks about both book and film and the way she is portrayed). Director Ryan Murphy has done a solid job here, taking on both writing the screenplay and directing. There are so many stories and characters in Burroughs' book, that many different movies could have been made of it; Murphy chooses to keep the focus primarily on Augusten's relationship with his mother -- the strongest basis for a film, especially if you can land Annette Bening to play the part -- and as a result Augusten's other relationships are drawn a bit light, but if you're intrigued to learn more you can always pick the book to further explore those characters.