MENTAL. Starring: Toni Collette, Anthony LaPaglia, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Liev Schrieber, Deborah Mailman, Lily Sullivan, Bethany Whitmore, and Nicole Freeman. Directed by P.J. Hogan. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language and themes). 116 min.
This home grown comedy-drama tells the story of Shaz (Tony Collette), who is introduced into a family of five girls as hired help, and changes their lives. The film was shot on location in Ballina, NSW, and is very Australian in character. Refrains from the movie, “The Sound of Music” (1965), both begin and end the film to give it a satirical bent, but the movie is unashamedly Australian - from the broad Australian accents of its main players, to the distinctive Aussie features of what makes the Australian culture so familiar.
The family is sent into crisis when a busy politician, Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), who is running for Mayor, commits his stressed-out wife, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), to a mental hospital and tells everyone, including his five children, that she is taking a holiday in Wollongong. In Shirley’s absence, he finds that he is unable to cope with his precocious daughters, who are determined to behave badly. All of his daughters, including Coral (Lily Sullivan), Jane (Bethany Whitmore) and Leanne (Nicole Freeman) are difficult to control, and nearly all of them think they are suffering from some form of mental illness. As one of his children says,” I expect to be schizophrenic any day now”. In desperation, he picks up Shaz, who is hitchhiking with her dog in the neighbourhood, and he moves both her and her dog into his house.
Shaz sees herself as “the avenging angel of the perpetually humiliated”, and is more eccentric than the children she is hired to care for. To Shaz, “there is no such thing as normal, only shades of mental”.
With comic assistance from a humiliating Nancy (Kerry Fox) and Doris (Caroline Goodall), and support from her indigenous friend, Sandra (Deborah Mailman), Shaz brings crazy order to a crazy family, and the scenario is set for additional bedlam when Shaz’s ex-partner, Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber) arrives. The film conveys the message that sometimes it takes real craziness to deal with awful behaviour, and it offers the generally sound advice that whatever happens, never “lose yourself”. However, its messages are more convincing than the film that communicates them.
The film reunites Tony Collette with P.J. Hogan, who was the director of “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994), and they obviously work well together. Hogan wrote and directed this movie, and Collette brings a touch of over-the-top madness to her bizarre style of mothering. In a comedy that is fast-paced and energetic, there is no shortage of colour in the behaviour of both nanny and family.
Shaz gradually coaches the family away from the look of rampant mental instability, to the appearance of a more subdued version of eccentricity. The situations created by Hogan are farcical in character. They work well when Shaz and the children motor through the town’s streets showing us how the behaviour of people around them looks madder than their own. However, the film loses its way in the end, when situations get out of control, and Hogan starts to repeat what he has shown to us before.
There are 100s of films through time that have dealt with mental illness in some form. Examples are: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The King of Comedy” (1982), and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993). In this film, there is no well-integrated position about the effects of mental illness, or its nature. The film takes oddity and uncontrollable behaviour, and wrings them dry for their comic impact.
This is a film about a family coming together, but it has been made in a way that shows scenes that have earned for it a restricted classification rating. This closes the movie off to young adolescents, who might otherwise have been a target audience.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 4, 2012.