by Katie Gile
If there’s one thing you can call Director/Writer P.J. Hogan’s “Mental,” it’s quirky.
Defying genre with seemingly random references, charming indie tunes and a super-saturated color aesthetic, it’s a film about accepting oneself, warts and all.
As “Mental” begins, we meet Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney) as she waltzes through her yard singing “the Sound of Music.” Her five outcast daughters shrink in embarrassment at their presumably insane mother, with no support or presence from their politically ambitious and unfaithful father, Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia). Lacking the “instinct of conformity” the five girls assume themselves insane because that’s what everyone else says, and thus assume that they’re unwanted in the world. Shirley soon cracks under the mental weight of her home life and is committed to a mental hospital. Into her place sweeps Shaz (Toni Collette), a tornado on two legs who becomes the nanny. Mary Poppins with a sailor mouth, she teaches the girls that crazy is in the eye of the beholder. Under her unhinged, tough-love tutelage, they each come to understand that the world’s a crazy place and they fit just fine within it.
As Shaz puts it, “there’s no such thing as normal, just different shades of mental.”
P.J. Hogan’s film follows Shaz’s sage words, cleverly framing its world one way, then turning the whole judgmental arrangement on its head to suit her point of view. Around the houseful of colorful characters, Hogan’s supporting characters are unorthodox yet completely logical. Taking a dim view on the hateful, pretentious mentality of small towns and nosy neighbors, Hogan’s writing is playful and profound. With emotional depth and approachable humor, he gives us a fresh perspective on the glory of outcasts. Asking the audience the same question that eldest daughter Coral (Lily Sullivan) asks her mother, “What would Shaz do?” Hogan opens our eyes and minds with this delightfully unusual film.
Toni Collette stars as Shaz. Collette, who is no stranger to indie films, shows us the many faces of mental. Though her overacting and mugging grate at first, she opens herself emotionally to the audience and it’s in that that she’s irresistible. Her skill as an actress is clearest when she balances Shaz’s over-the-top antics with reason and grounds even the most outrageous moments in reality. Collette’s approach is surprising, her character remaining believable throughout.
Lily Sullivan’s Coral Moochmore is self-conscious and sheltered. In other words, a typical teenage girl. Coral’s desperate need for approval, however nearly gets her in trouble with boys. Sullivan’s greatest performance strength then comes when Coral embraces her oddities and it’s then that she subtly, but noticeably, transitions from girl to young woman. While it’s a quiet moment, Sullivan takes a possibly irritating character and makes her likeable.
Though Rebecca Gibney’s Shirley Moochmore scores precious little screen-time, her portrayal was delightful. As a woman with nothing wrong (except low self-esteem and a cad of a husband) who assumes herself insane, Shirley is a sweet lady. Then, as her character realizes her own worth, Gibney steeps her in self respect and throws in a steel spine for good measure. In the midst of all this transition, Gibney never loses contact with the audience, always giving us a way to relate to her.
Anthony LaPaglia’s Barry Moochmore was a complex creature. Considering LaPaglia’s usual resume of kind wise-guys, this role was a decided departure. His treatment of Barry created a morally weak man, who, as it turned out, might have a shred of decency within him. Because Barry spends most of the movie as a spoiled misogynist, his character arc to mild virtue made him very compelling.
Fleshing out the stellar supporting cast are Liev Schreiber, Caroline Goodall, Sam Clark, and Bethany Whitmore, Malorie O’Neill, Nicole Freeman and Chelsea Bennett as the other four Moochmore daughters. Liev Schreiber and Sam Clark play near-foils of one another to great comedic effect. And the entire supporting cast is deliciously odd in their many Technicolor shades of mental.
Overall, P.J. Hogan’s “Mental” is not like any film you’ve seen before. There’s a love story here, a musical number there, near-Seussical play with colors, dark and dusty drama, and a delight in the offbeat. Hogan’s writing is irreverent, yet emotionally sensible, and his direction of a strong group of actors is well-placed. It’s an over-the-top film and likely won’t suit every taste, but if you strap in and enjoy things as they come, “Mental” is a wonderful, weird surprise.
"Mental" Movie Review
by Katie Gile