The Movie Waffler First Look Review - THE MENTAL STATE | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - THE MENTAL STATE

The Mental State review
A teen's neglected mental health issues send him on a dark path.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: James Camali

Starring: Jance Enslin, Carly Pope, Alyssa Sutherland, Bryan Greenberg, Alison Thornton, William Popp, Nathan Wallace

The Mental State poster

Absolute state on it that, via sheer volume of product and the repetition of specific scenarios, the high-school shooter film has become a bona fide genre in itself. The mode begins in the early 2000s following Columbine (then an aberration and not a fixture of the American news cycle), an event which was faithfully recreated in Van Sant's Elephant, right up to Ramsey's We Need to Talk About Kevin, perhaps the canon's most iconic entry, bookending the decade. The shooter film now abides as a shrugging, pseudo-sympathetic juxtaposition to the gun crazy otherwise of American cinema, with its recurrent cast of ominous wallflower, targeted kids and earnestly bereaved parents all fraught within a sombre iconography of autumn leaves, pecking order canteens and deep focus corridors of blank lockers. As the Western typified mid-1900s Hollywood, is the high-school shooter film the defining American genre of the 21st century?

I dunno - I try to avoid them as much as I can, tbh. As someone who occasionally works with young people it's all a bit too close to home (no idea how American teachers do it - apparently there are four school shootings a week over there. Job seems hard enough without that hanging over your head every day). I wouldn't imagine, however, that the topic is always processed with the sensitivity, attention to detail and humanity which James Camali's (with script support from Jeremy Anderson and Joshua Barclay, based on the play by Josh Adell) The Mental State entails.

The Mental State review

The film takes place in a post-Columbine America where shooter drills are an everyday school-day reality, just another aspect of the threshold state of adolescence and its general drudgery: girls/boys, grades/college, fitting in or not fitting in. Protagonist Andy (Jance Enslin - superb in what must be the most uniformly impressive ensemble cast I've seen this year) is a likeable enough kid. Awkward and shy, he harbours aspirations to be a comic book ("graphic novels", he chides his parents) artist, and is eking out the days until he goes to college. The adults around him, either dead or stuck in a proletariat malaise, don't promise much hope for the future, however....

Slight spoilers follow... Early in the film, ostensibly gentle Andy is shot at as he commandeers the church truck, with its cargo bed full of Christian poppets, as part of a fun drive across the fields (apparently what they do in mid-western church fetes). It is only Andy's sharp steering skills that manages to save the kids from being murdered to death by the shadowy figure he glimpses across the field, and who subsequently retreats back into the woods as his intended target careers into some machinery. Andy is hailed as a hero until a post-crash analysis of the truck reveals no bullet damage to the truck whatsoever. In these early scenes what is subtly unsettling is the unquestioning acceptance of what Andy says, a general acquiescence to the possibility that someone would open fire on a bunch of young kids in a truck. Why not? Everyone in the sleepy town owns a gun and a relative of Andy's was even killed by one some time ago. You'll pry those firearms from their cold, dead hands after all.

The Mental State review

Andy isn't right. Retreating into superhero narratives, subjected to church, he is a loner in need of purpose: the slyly essayed American archetype inaugurated by goofy Travis Bickle looking for trouble and a chance to prove himself in post-Vietnam American cinema (it is intriguing that Andy is contextualised by both his church, an institution disingenuously patronised by the American right, and comic books, a fandom of which has, let's be fair, revealed itself to be impotently toxic). Within a mise-en-scene of hopeless greys, bare forests and cold institutions, we follow Andy in his adorably awkward attempts to make connections with a cute girl in school, and then as he rendezvouses with his survivalist father who lives in the woods and offers increasingly unhinged instructions to his son.

We see the film through Andy's perspective, which pulls a few narrative tricks to communicate his skewed worldview (in the case of Andy's jaundiced view of his classmates, ingeniously so), but the dad figure is kidding no one. In need of actualisation, of guidance, and, perhaps, the good old American ideal of exceptionalism, Andy has made an imaginary friend from the memory of his father; a figment which is, of course, entirely subjective. Andy's psychosis (the title reference, although to British/Irish audiences, with our non-pc slang and gun bafflement, it may translate to "mad county") is carefully presented, a slowly worsening condition catalysed by his environment.

The Mental State review

What is impressive about Camali's film is the unhurried pacing, with the reveal of Andy's mental state inexorably dawning on us. Likewise, the time we spend with Andy, who seems entirely indifferent to guns at the start, along with Enslin's commitment, give us a character of depth and texture: one who it seems is inevitably on the way to the same sort of denouement that statistically three of his irl peers chose this very month.

But with that, The Mental State is a consistently surprising and vividly episodic narrative. What we think is going to happen might well happen sooner than we imagined, and not exactly in the way we assumed it would. Consolidating the approach, Enslin focuses on the women in Andy's life, his mum and aunt (Carly Pope and Alyssa Sutherland), who despair over their potentially murderous charge. Data suggests that less than 0.5 of school shooters are female: girls stand more chance of being the victim, or at least growing up to pick up the pieces as Angela and Dana do here. The eternal tragedy of every teenager is their inability to see the bigger picture, to understand the longevity of adulthood and the consequences of youthful actions. In The Mental State we see the effects of violence, both short term and long,  in empathetic, crushing delineation.

The Mental State is on US VOD from December 19th. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

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