Written: November 11, 2014 for Australian National Cinema
When I asked my friends what their favorite Australian film was, they immediately said P.J. Hogan’s Mental (2012) because it was, in their collective opinion, one of the funniest Australian films they have ever seen. After watching the film, I quickly understood why my friends loved it so much. The opening scene where Shirley Moochmore proudly reenacts The Sound of Music (1965) in her backyard to her children’s horror (they scream, ‘the embarrassment is total!’) really set the scene of the film and confirmed that it was going to be an interesting watch. What resonated with me and drove me to review Mental (2012) was the fact that it was as worrying and unsettling as it was entertaining and funny. Underneath the bouts of crazy antics by Shaz and the Moochmores lied a much darker and tragic narrative. However, in true Aussie spirit, Hogan’s characters used their humorous outlook on life to be resilient and ultimately, survive.
Mental (2012) is based on Hogan’s real life experiences. As in the film, Hogan’s mother had a nervous breakdown when he was 12 years old and his politician father kept this a secret, thinking that it would hurt his chances for re-election. Hogan then came home from school one day to find a strange woman with a dog who would end up looking after the family. Hogan also grew up with two mentally ill siblings, and has two autistic children. When asked why he wanted to create a comedy about mental illness, he replied, “one, if you don’t develop a sense of humour real quick, you’ll go crazy yourself, and two, they’re really funny.” To personally experience such difficult circumstances and still be able to see the humorous side of things is something that I have always admired about Australians. Hogan’s resilient quality can clearly be seen in the Moochmore girls, Shirley, and Shaz, and makes it very easy for audiences to sympathise with these characters.
I think that even if I watched Mental (2012) before migrating to Australia, I would still find it quite funny. The film is very Australian with its Aussie characters and accents, the unique self-deprecating humour, its coastal location, and of course, Toni Collette. Yet, I think that there is something modern and refreshing about Mental (2012) that enables it to go beyond Australian borders. Ross Gibson writes that a majority of Australian films have been about traversing into the Australian Outback and points out that such film’s narratives were often dictated by the land, for example: Mad Max (1979) and Gallipoli (1981). Modern Australian films such as Australia (2008) and The Rover (2014) also follow this same trend. What is unique about Mental (2012) is that the coastal town of Dolphin Heads simply provides the setting of the film and it is the trials and tribulations of the characters that move the narrative forward. By drawing minimal attention to the location, audiences from other countries are able to easily relate Dolphin Heads to a similar coastal town in their own country. In fact, all the locations used in the film are ambiguous enough to be easily be pictured in a country other than Australia. Eg: the café, the mental hospital, the neighbourhood, the waterpark, and the Moochmore home. The scene where Coral and Trout visit the waterpark at night brought back fun memories of visiting Splash Island in the Philippines with my friends and family. Having that experience really made me understand how much fun Coral and Trout were having while going down the waterslide (I would never slide down a waterslide naked though).
Although mental illness is clearly the focal point of the film, Mental (2012) also addresses a huge range of issues that help enhance its universality. Marriage, infidelity, young love, the struggles of adolescence, family relations, racism, and dealing with death are just a few of the other issues that the characters face. For me, Coral’s insecurities about her looks and being awkward around boys is something that I can definitely relate to. For others, Mental (2012)’s blatant portrayal of issues such as infidelity and grieving the death of a loved one can really hit some home truths and affect audiences across the world. An example of this is the emotional dialogue between Shaz and Trevor as Shaz attempts to set free the shark that killed their daughter:
TREVOR: She’s dead! Why don’t ya let ‘er die?
SHAZ: Cause she calls me. You hear ‘er, I know ya hear ‘er!
TREVOR: ‘Course I hear ‘er! I hear ‘er every day of me life! In me heart! Me memories!
SHAZ: Pull the trigger… help me. You’re the only one who understands.
During this scene, it is revealed that despite their troubled past, the heartbreaking reality is that Shaz and Trevor are just parents grieving the death of their daughter. I was really taken aback when watching this bit of the film because it had such raw emotion, tangibility and a sense of immediacy to it. As Trevor says: A little girl once told me she jumped off a veranda ‘cause she didn’t like the look of her own face. Imagine if that little girl knew real pain. Grief. Despair (Mental, 2012). Although Mental (2012) is predominantly an Australian comedy, I believe that it is these undertones of real life issues that make it a truly universal film.
I only have two criticisms for Mental (2012). First is the lack of racial diversity. As I looked through all the scenes of the film, I noticed that a majority of the actors (even the extras) were predominantly white. Hjort and Mackenzie (2005) suggests that “the production, circulation, and consumption of the moving image is constitutive of national collectivity.” Although there is no real indication of the exact year the film is set, I assume that it would be around 2012, the year that it was released. If national cinema is meant to represent a nation’s identity, I feel as though Mental (2012) has fallen a little short of portraying the multicultural diversity in Australia today. It is only Shaz’s Aboriginal friend Sandra that brings some form of diversity into the film. However, the prejudice that Noxious Nance projects towards Sandra as she retrieves a boomerang from her backyard can be seen as an observation by Hogan that Aboriginals still face adversity in Australia today. This portrayal of Australian attitudes can be interpreted as offensive and off putting to some viewers watching the film.
Mental (2012) has a female dominated cast. As a female watching the film, I thought that it was great to see so many women play strong, hilarious, and sensitive lead roles. Although the idea that ‘everybody is a little bit mental’ holds true for the film, what I noticed was that the state of actually being crazy and/or mentally unstable was something that only the female characters experienced, as though being truly mental was an inherently female trait. Shirley, Shaz, Sandra, Nancy, Doris, and the Moochmore girls are all portrayed at some point and level as being mentally unstable. Meanwhile, the men of the film, Barry, Trout, and Trevor, are presented as relatively normal. Ellis writes: “the essential Australian is male, working class, laconic…these virtues are defined and redefined under the harsh conditions of the bush, workplace, war, or sport, in which women, and their feminine qualities are considered to be beside the point.” Zonn & Aitken (2010) further suggests that in Australian cinema, “women are either represented as the ‘other,’ the dark continent, or they embody societal structures and norms against which the hero is rebelling.” I believe these statements are true to the narrative of Mental (2012). The morning after Shirley is admitted to the mental hospital, Barry is left to deal with his five daughters who all think they have mental issues. As the Moochmore girls talk over one another to tell to their father about their problems, Barry slams the table and says: Enough!… This wouldn’t be happening to me if I had a family of boys! (Mental, 2012). When Kayleen points out that boys also have breakdowns, Barry replies: Not Australian boys – they’re too busy playing football (Mental, 2012). Barry’s response reiterates the observations made by Ellis and further portrays how males are expected to act in Australia. In a later scene, Barry furiously tells his friend: I’m going mental!… There’s pizza boxes piled everywhere cause none ‘em can cook! They can’t do the dishes, they don’t make the beds, it’s a nightmare! (Mental, 2012). This line is a representation of the domestic role that females were expected to play, according to Australia’s patriarchal ideologies of the past that perhaps still continue today. Hogan blatantly portrays other examples of the power disparity between males and females throughout Mental (2012). In another passage, Zonn & Aitken (2010) suggest that “women in commercial narrative cinema have little relevance beyond their representations of sexual objects.” Perhaps the most jarring example of this is the casual way in which Shirley tells Shaz the ‘romantic’ story of how she and Barry got together:
SHIRLEY: On our second date, he sort of raped me…on the terrace of the Dolphin Heads Casino. Well, he’d had a bit to drink and suddenly, he was all over me. And I’m there going ‘No, no,’ like you do. But you know how men are – they just go with the flow, don’t they? Anyway, next day, I said to myself ‘Shirley, if he doesn’t call you in three weeks, you’re a slut’ … It was before three weeks was up that I found out I was pregnant with Coral… I suppose you think that’s a bad foundation for a marriage – rape (Mental, 2012).
To me, Shirley’s dismissive attitude and her acceptance of Barry’s malicious actions is extremely unsettling knowing that since the beginning of the film, she had been hell bent on impressing Barry and getting him to come home for dinner. What is even more shocking is the fact that after hearing Shirley’s story, Shaz coolly replies: I’ve heard worse…I’ve lived worse… You wouldn’t know (Mental, 2012). Hogan does not delve into the details of Shaz and Trevor’s relationship and I honestly could not imagine what could be worse than what happened to Shirley so whatever it was, it must have been really, really bad.
What is impressive is that despite all the hardships that life throws at them and the crazy experiences they have had, the female characters of Mental (2012) are always able to rise up and keeping moving forward. After stepping back and look at the film once more, I realised that Mental (2012) is actually a testament to female resilience. In the end, Shirley gets control of her life, leaves Barry, and fulfills her longtime dream of singing Edelweiss with her family just like the Von Trapps. Coral gets over her insecurities and accepts herself for who she is, making Trout fall in love with her. Shaz is able to get closure from the death of her daughter and in more ways than one, gets the last laugh. I guess that in hindsight, P.J. Hogan’s portrayal of females as crazy is not such a bad thing. If it takes a little bit of crazy to be able to rise above life’s hardships as the female characters of Mental (2012) do, then count me in and call me mental.