Friday, 10 June 2016

Mad Love (1995)

Well now this was a pleasant surprise.

Despite technically being the right age for Mad Love when it was released in 1995 (I was 15) and having a little teenage crush on Drew Barymore at the time, the film completely passed me by. I only became aware of it later in life when my appreciation for Antonia Bird grew and grew and, even then, I only knew it as the Hollywood film that she got her fingers burnt on - which was further reiterated in the Susan Kemp documentary on BBC4 recently. With that in mind, I settled down expecting the worst; a fear that was exacerbated when, to my surprise, I saw that Paula Milne (Angels, The Politician's Wife, Chandler & Co, White Heat to name but a few) was responsible for the script - had Hollywood really took not one but two creative British female talents and zapped their project of all its heart and substance as Mad Love's mediocre reputation suggests?

Actually no, not really.

Granted Mad Love is not perfect, you just know there's a final cut or an original draft in here somewhere that just never made its way to the screen, but it would be really unfair to say this isn't a good and effective little movie despite Touchstone Pictures presumably watering it down. Just as you perhaps know that this kind of film could only have been told by Brits abroad, because it delivers a far more authentic depiction of mental health and problems facing young adults than the average American teen movie has ever done before or since.

In a nutshell, Mad Love is a somewhat traditional story of star-crossed love. Two ridiculously pretty teenagers fall in love against their archetypal parents wishes. Determined to be together, they hit the road in search of their dreams and their destiny to be together. 

Chris O'Donnell stars as Matt Leland, a straight A student in Seattle who also holds down a lot of familial responsibility too looking after his 9 yr old brother and sister (twins - just one example of a recurring motif in the film to suggest duality) whilst their father immerses himself in work, their mother having walked out long ago. In his spare time, Matt likes to stargaze and has particular focus on the twin stars (see?) Castor and Pollux. However, that fondness is overshadowed one night when, looking out onto the lake his house resides alongside, he spies new neighbour Casey Roberts (Drew Barrymore) for the first time and he instantly falls for her dark rimmed eyes, those bee sting lips and her kooky persona. He contrives a meeting at a grunge gig and, before long, they fall in love.

However, Casey's father - a stern authoritarian - doesn't seem keen on this development. He doesn't seem to think that she's ready for a relationship, and his reason - which we incrementally become aware of - makes a certain amount of sense: Casey is bipolar and is in need of treatment.

But because most of the time Casey is fine (and presumably taking her meds to ensure this stability; her dual personality - again twin motif - coming into play) Matt doesn't know or even suspect that she is ill at all. He just presumes she's something of a livewire, prone to sudden and impulsive, often volatile acts. Matt's first understanding that all is not well is when, following a row with her parents about him, Casey is admitted into the local psychiatric hospital. Believing this to be a huge overreaction, Matt conspires to break her out and they take to the road heading south west towards Mexico.

What I found really refreshing about Mad Love was that, from the moment the road trip commences, every expectation we have and the cliches we normally get from this kind of film is neatly sidestepped by Bird and Milne. Most Hollywood movies seem to be of the belief that psychiatric treatment is bad, and that the only cure for mental illness is true love, adventures and experiences, and camping out in picturesque woods under the stars. Mad Love skirts with these tropes, but commits itself to authenticity by showing a steady deterioration in Casey's behaviour as she goes on the run and as the film progresses. To that end, the film is also highly original for a Hollywood production in that it actually seems to understand mental illness - even though they are a little coy to label Casey's condition as bipolar or, as it was predominantly known at the time, manic depression. There's also the inevitable trope of some kind of crime spree rearing its head in most 'young lovers on the run' movies and, although the film presents us with a young Liev Schreiber as a sleazy travelling salesman with wandering hands and a gun in the glovebox who gives them both a lift, again Bird and Milne mostly steer clear of our expectations.

The film may be called Mad Love and ostensibly be about Casey's mental illness but there's an argument to be made that it is actually more about Matt's growing maturity. Since his mother walked out he's had to be a surrogate parent for his two younger siblings and now, finding himself moving from town to town with a deeply vulnerable and irrational young woman who he loves deeply, he realises he has another responsibility upon his shoulders and seeks to address the situation before it gets any further out of hand. At each step, the problems feel genuine and not at all like the plot contrivances of problems specific only to the fictional, cinematic world.

It's a film that boasts fine performances from its two stars, with O'Donnell believable as he faces the crossroads between romantic feelings for Casey and the concerned feelings for her wellbeing, which he selflessly must put first. Barrymore naturally gets the showier role and delivers it perfectly, perhaps drawing on her own experiences of mental illness, as she walks the fine line between reckless confidence and a troubling vulnerability that is easy to emphathise with. Both stars were in their ascent in the mid '90s and they are the perfect poster girl and boy to attract the teen cinemagoer of that decade into the multiplexes for such a big and touching, summer picture - with an indie, grungey soundtrack to match which concludes with the UK's very own Kirsty MacColl (RIP) So it's a real shame the reviews perhaps kept the audience at bay.

On the whole, Mad Love manages to avoid both the cliches and mawkish sentimentality for much of the time, but occasionally it does stumble; the ending goes all out for the dewy eyed crowd, complete with hazy flashbacks. Casey's father is a particularly one-note character, and even Veep's Kevin Dunn starring here as Matt's dad has little to work with. But I guess it's the kind of film where adult characters are essentially disapproving, misunderstood ciphers until the final reel, when Matt sees how ill Casey is and finds an ally in her mother who accepts him, advises him to return her daughter home, and finally silences her dour disapproving husband by stepping up to the plate. However, I did like a certain motif that Bird continually played with which was to show adults forever on the periphery of scenes, always looking in on our young lovers and attempting to intervene, or at least considering it. We see a teacher following the pair early on, considering reprimanding them before something else catches his attention. Occasionally you hear lines spoken by them a little louder than expected in the dub, a recurring theme that only made sense when it became clear that such chatter formed a constant intrusive soundtrack for Casey's troubled mind.

Despite it's faults, it's unfair that Mad Love, a Hollywood film that takes a level-headed credible look at mental illness, has seemingly been consigned to the forgotten ranks of cinema history and that the same contrived mistakes can be repeated again and again by far dumber, less aware Oscar-bait movies which people happily seem to fall hook, line and sinker for (yes, I'm looking at you Silver Linings Playbook) It's equally a shame that Bird did not get the recognition she deserved in the US industry for turning in such a thought provoking movie that actually works to the extent that it does in spite of studio interference.

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