Director: P.J. Hogan (‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’)
Starring: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber and Anthony LaPaglia
Learning to embrace who you truly are, and not feeling as though you always have to conform to society’s standard of what’s considered normal, is a major theme that’s humorously and emotionally explored in the new comedy-drama, ‘Mental.’ From the five diverse Moochmore teenage daughters, who care more about what makes them happy than the fact they’re considered different from their neighbors, to the free-spirited hitchhiker Shaz who shows them they don’t have to prove anything to those who look down on them, writer-director P.J. Hogan’s latest film intriguingly embrace their uniqueness. Aided by distinct set designs that emphasize each character’s motivations, ‘Mental’ is an emotional and amusing look into what happens when people truly learn to accept their true personalities.
‘Mental’ follows the five Moochmore sisters as they come to believe they’re suffering from an undiagnosed neurotic mental illness, because if they’re not, that means they’re just unpopular. Unable to cope with her wild daughters, their mother, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), and her unsupportive and philandering political husband, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia), lives in the fantasy world of the Von Trapp family and the songs from ‘The Sound of Music.’ When her delusions become too much too much to bear, Barry commits Shirley to a mental hospital, only to find himself unsure of how to relate to, and raise, his five teenage daughters alone. Desperate to avoid dealing with his family, he impulsively picks up a hitchhiker, Shaz (Toni Collette), who becomes the girls’ nanny and transforms their lives with her unconventional beliefs. While she appears to be charismatic and hot tempered herself, Shaz gives the girls the inspiration to stand up for themselves against those who try to bring them down, including Shirley’s sister (Caroline Goodall), who cares more about her doll collection than her family.
While Shaz initially appears to be helping the Moochmore girls, her irrational side is accentuated by the appearance of Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber), a shark hunter who runs the exhibit at the local amusement park where Shirley and Barry’s oldest daughter, Coral (Lily Sullivan), works. Barry originally seems to be a father-figure, and interested in protecting Coral’s best interest, particularly against the sexual advances of one of the park’s teenage lifeguards, Trout (Sam Clark). However, Trevor’s vengeful side surfaces when his surprising connection to, and past with, Shaz is revealed.
Hogan rightfully reunited with one of his ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ star, Collette, for his latest comedy-drama, casting her in the unsympathetic and tough Shaz. The actress emotionally and humorously balanced the free-spirited, yet tough and militant, aspects of the hitchhiker, seamlessly moving between Shaz’s vulnerability of losing her own family and her heartless nature of not caring about how other people perceive her or the consequences of her spontaneous, reckless decisions. Whether Shaz is ordering Coral and her younger sisters to clean the house or challenge their family and neighbors about their lowly opinions about them and their parents, or is antagonizing Trevor about their past and confronting her own struggles about the downfall of her own family, Collette easily changes her portrayal to reflect the character’s ever changing moods. The actress’ realistic portrayal of Shaz’s tough, no-nonse attitude with the Moochmore girls and her equally strong, but opposing, vulnerability when reflecting on her transgressions with her own family, emotionally drives the continuous jokes about the Moochmore family’s dysfunctional nature and the all important message of protecting and forgiving family, in ‘Mental.’
Despite the fact that the character of Trevor was a supporting role in the film, Schreiber was another well-cast actor who also showcased the constantly changing and interwoven humor and vulnerability of the story. Despite Hogan’s initial hesitation about hiring an American to play an Australian character, as the director was concerned if the actor could perfect the accent, the filmmaker rightfully cast Schreiber in the versatile role of Trevor. The actor originally provides a mysterious motivation to the shark hunter when he first arrives at the exhibit while Coral is working, easily scaring Trout from the eldest Moochmore daughter but also providing her with advice on how to protect herself and her emotions. After Coral expresses her hesitance and disbelief over why he wants to help her, Schreiber convincingly turns Trevor’s seemingly caring nature into vindictive motivations, and is instantly ready to seek retribution from Shaz for her past indiscretions against him.
Production designer Graham ‘Grace’ Walker and set decorator Kristen Donaldson created authentic and diverse locations that imaginatively reflected the drastically different personalities in the film. The two crafted a distinct but modest house for the Moochmore family, creating different rooms for the five daughters that matched their personalities. From Michelle (Malorie O’Neill) relegating herself to setting up a bed in the dark and desolate basement, among the family’s unused yard equipment and other possessions, in order to stop hearing voices to Coral’s disordered room that’s cluttered with modern technology, the Moochmore house clearly proved how different the girls are from not only society, but each other as well.
Walker and Donaldson also adeptly created a desolate, seemingly abandoned area of the amusement park for Trevor’s shark exhibit. While the display shows his commitment to his claim to fame that he caught the shark that ate the prime minister, through numerous detailed photographs and background information on the incident, the fact that he and Coral are normally alone there emphasizes the fact that he’s the main person still living in, and dwelling on, his past. Even with the numerous and impressive shark displays the production and set designer created, the often dim lighting and lack of patrons reflect the fact that Trevor is the main character still clinging to the past, while Shaz is encouraging the Moochmores to move on with, and improve, their lives.
Hogan created an emotionally moving story that reflects on a large family’s inability to truly connect with, and understand, each other any more, and failure to be able to bond and assimilate with their neighbors. With the rightful casting of Collette and Schreiber in the two distinct and powerful roles of Shaz and Trevor, ‘Mental’ humorously and emotionally showcases the vulnerability and loneliness everyone experiences when they lose touch with their family. With the aid of the distinct locations and sets designed by both Walker and Donaldson that fit each characters’ personality and motivations, the comedy-drama not only explores the pain and grief that motivates people into action, but the at-times effective results that come from people forcing themselves to change their paths and futures.
Written by: Karen Benardello