Thursday, 4 October 2012


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

The Sound of Music may be a running motif in P.J. Hogan’s homecoming feature, Mental, but it is very much a twisted take on another Julie Andrews heroine, Mary Poppins, which has inspired his somewhat autobiographical tale of girls - and minds - gone wild in the Australian suburbs.

That would be the suburbs of the Gold Coast town of Dolphin’s Head, where the matriarch of the Moochmore family, Shirley (a surprisingly affecting Rebecca Gibney), retreats into the world of the Von Trapps when the day-to-day realities of the real world become too much. Those realities include five unruly daughters, roughly aged between 10 and 16, and a husband, Barry (Anthony Lapaglia), who, as the mayor of this coastal enclave, prefers to spend his nights doing a little one-on-one with his female constituents.

When Shirley finally snaps, she’s sent to “Wollongong for a holiday”, and Barry randomly plucks a stranger from the streets to be his live-in nanny-of-sorts. That would be Shaz (Toni Collette), who, equipped with a hunting knife and cattle dog, is by no means a magically endowed au pair or musically-inclined nun-to-be.

What she is is a renegade, a provocateur. Shaz shirks conformity and laughs in the face of society's disapproval, and she's come to show the Moochmore girls that it's perfectly normal to not be normal. Like Seal once sang, we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy, and Shaz, no stranger to the insides of the proverbial padded cell, knows that “normal” is a façade; that we’re all crazy, it’s just a matter of degrees.

And in P.J. Hogan’s opinion, the worst form of mental illness is conformity: the desire to fit in, to be accepted; to not be different and to not challenge the status quo. And Collette’s Shaz is Hogan’s big ‘fuck you’ to that way of thinking.

Unfortunately, his film is as bipolar as his anti-heroine, swinging wildly between comedy and an attempt at a deeper seriousness (not surprisingly, there are more than a few skeletons in Shaz's closet).

Collette, teaming with Hogan since both had their careers launched by 1994's Muriel's Wedding, is solid as Shaz. She's had plenty of practise playing crazy on TV's United States of Tara and she manages to pitch her performance just this side of caricature.

The same can't be said of Deborah Mailman, as Shaz's hyperactive gal pal, but she's fun nonetheless, while Liev Schrieber (with an impressive Aussie accent) resides in the film's darker spots as shark hunter, Trevor Blundell, one of said skeletons.

Good, too, are all of the young actresses who comprise the Moochmore menagerie, notably Lily Sullivan whose Coral, the eldest daughter, is struggling with her hormones as much as her family life (though I could have done without her troubadouring lifeguard paramour, Trout (Sam Clark), who seems to know just the one, horrible song).

Mental is not a sequel to P.J. Hogan's Muriel’s Wedding, despite the reunion between director and star, and Hogan’s desire to mine similar territory – suburban discontent, the façade of happy lives – but it will inevitably draw comparisons. And it will ultimately come off second best. Mental is a much more audacious, unruly beast than the director’s 1994 breakout hit which, despite its dark undercurrents, was an ABBA-flavoured rom-com-ing of age story.

With Mental, Hogan takes risks which don't always pay off, and which an audience may not necessarily go along with. And while there may be a method to the director’s madness, it’s just a shame there isn’t enough discipline – like so much Prozac – to balance it out.

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