Amy (1998)

Critical Review of 'Amy' by Natalie-Ann De Gruchy.


'Amy' is the story of a girl traumatised by witnessing the tragic death of her rock star father. Emotionally she withdraws into a silent existence. Amy's mother is desperate to find her daughter a cure yet is constantly hindered by education and welfare departments. Through the intolerance and misinterpretations of experts, Amy is erroneously classified as needing "special education" and Tanya falsely labelled an unfit mother. Tanya is forced to flee to the city with Amy away from outback Australia in an attempt to escape the authorities that plan to take her daughter into custody. After arriving in unfriendly, lower class inner city Melbourne, eventually, an unemployed musician from across the street discovers Amy's secret, ultimately providing the key to infiltrate her created world of isolation. Through Robert's music and friendship, Amy rediscovers communication and simultaneously begins touching the lives of the people around her in Mercer Street and the local community.

The majority of Australian cinema, I have to admit, I do not derive a great deal of enjoyment from despite my great desire to. There are often certain scenes within many Australia films that I find entertaining or appreciation, yet I still generally evaluate them as fairly unremarkable in their entirety. My main pleasure is obtained from picking apart their numerous faults, predominantly my most common dissatisfaction with local cinema, the construction of Australianess. I think the problem is, at least in my opinion, that these films concentrate so intensely on Australianisation they result in creating dim-witted, uninteresting and underdeveloped characters. Perchance I am furthermore over conditioned to big budget Hollywood that I have difficulty accepting other non-dominant styles of filmmaking. However, I also have likes and dislikes amongst the American offerings and I do have appreciation and enthusiasm for Australian films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock, (1975) The Getting of Wisdom (1977), Malcolm (1986), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), Muriel's Wedding (1994)and Looking For Alibrandi (2000). From these titles, I grasped the knowledge that pleasing Australia cinema was worth selecting at the video library.

Due to my previous mixed fortunes with Australian cinema, I prepared myself with low expectations for my video viewing of 'Amy', regardless of the original cinema publicity capturing my attention and instilling the film's existence into my memory. I found the film synopsis of interest as, like the character of Amy, I also suffered from selective mutism as a child. Consequently, I thought the film deserved praise and my attention for tackling such a rare disorder, no matter its resulting quality. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised how strongly I enjoyed the film and during its screening I watched it as a movie instead of remembering to criticise it as a film text.

'Amy' boasts several merits as the narrative is intelligent, poignant, heart-warming, humorous, innovative and quirky. The film, although an unusual reality stretch, was authentic as people do not recover from grief and trauma and move on immediately like in countless media texts. The grieving process can take many years before normal life is resumed. Emotions of grief were sensitively dealt with as was the portrayal of mental illness. 'Amy' was a fairly accurate illustration of selective mutism despite it encompassing a rare twist. From personal experience, my selective mutism was less severe than Amy's as I could still hear but refused to talk. Like Amy, excluding my silence, I was a normal child. I could read, write and produce artwork that was advanced for my age. I also enjoyed music and would sing in a group situation. Many have criticised the use of music as unrealistic but I think it is feasible as Amy is grieving for her musician father who sang with her when he was alive and these are the principal memories she retains of him. An explanation for Amy's skilled vocals is she learnt by attempting to mimic his style from his CDs and also obtained a natural flair through genetics. The lead performances were admirable, manufacturing the situations as believable and avoiding delving into the ridiculous which could have easily occurred with this type of subject matter. The text highlights the intolerance towards psychological disorders and to any perceived difference from the norm. A lack of understanding by authorities added to Tanya's turmoil rather than easing or supporting her concerns for her child and Robert's sister, Anny was mocked for her obsession for revenge on her hairdresser rather than assisted. Society desires searching for someone to blame or ridicule instead of uncovering the true origin and meanings behind circumstances. Due to this persecution, people conceal their problems due to their fear and embarrassment and families, like Zac's and Amy's, feel isolated as their problems give the impression of being unique as silence exists in the community. The movie demonstrates this point by portraying problems such as domestic violence being operated by the characters as normal, everyday life and, thus accepted and unchanged by the victims or, on the other hand like Tanya, individuals are desperately seeking assistance although are unable to discover it owing to lack of publicity. One of the film's major themes is communication breakdown. Both Tanya and Amy mourn separately rather than sharing their grief between them and Amy burdens herself with the blame for the tragedy unbeknown to Tanya who was oblivious due to difficulty coping with her own emotions. The motivation of music and hazy, grainy flashbacks of the concert death is to delve into the psychological anguish of both mother and daughter and identifies inner healing as the other central plot theme. The film is intelligent in its examination of the human emotions associated with death.

The cinematography contains beautiful aesthetic filmmaking cleverly connoting both tragedy and lighter, happier moments. At the beginning of the film, panoramic outback scenes display the texture and vibrant colours of the Australian landscape, establishing it as a blissful, free place for Amy. Flashbacks are utilised of her frolicking in the fields with her father and, later, alone reminiscing about her joy in this place where her father still exists. Later, as the peril of welfare workers brings Amy back to her actual reality, Parker makes the same outback landscape and its physical remoteness appear isolating and miserable particularly during the scene where mother and daughter are waiting for the bus to Melbourne, while the wind is wildly blowing their skirts. The pair remain still, like surreal statues, not acknowledging each other and standing unclose. These images helped by the landscape, signify the emotional distance between mother and child and their detachment from normal life preferring to withdraw into their separate private inner worlds.

Once in Melbourne, misery and isolation are again encountered. The city landscape shots appearing greater than their world and they enter Mercer Street where their neighbours are mainly unwelcoming and the pair labelled "aliens". The city suburb film set vividly displays the poverty, dysfunction, mundaneness, despair and decay within the homes of Mercer Street. This is the working class environment where Tass spent her childhood and her direction brings out a humourous exaggeration of the everyday pleasures utilised to combat the despair of disadvantage and dysfunction like Zac's stolen hub cap collection and Mrs Mullin's obsession with keeping her front garden and footpath tidy.

This helps explain the neighbour's eventual motivation in supporting Amy as they similarly find an escape from the mundane through song. Tass explains why the musical comedy in the film such as the singing police search party are believable despite the characters; "doing the absolutely unthinkable, which is singing to find her. I mean, how ridiculous is that? In my way of thinking, it's totally ridiculous, yet these people are out there doing it, which is what I'd be doing if a little girl down the street was lost. So it's the very condition that touched people and opened them up as human beings which created the musical aspect of the movie." (Malone, 2001, p.146) As a multicultural director, Tass's 'Amy' reminds me of European filmmaking as it does not follow Hollywood genre conventions. To an extent, 'Amy' could draw comparisons with Italian film 'Life is Beautiful'. This film, like 'Amy' was a mixture of comedy and tragedy drama. I found it a brilliant, heartwarming film yet rather bizarre as the father was pretending for his young son that the Nazi death camp they were prisoners in was a game to aid his son's survival and prevent his fear. Society has a fondness for children and are willing to behave in unusual ways to playfully interact with them and this grounds the concept of policemen singing to relocate the missing Amy as the obvious procedure to undertake.

Again, like European cinema, Amy has a reality based ending as regardless of a happy resolution to the main conflict, Mercer Street remains with its imperfections.The street's residents remain socioeconomically disadvantaged, Zac is illiterate, Anny mentally unstable, Mrs Mullins remains disagreeable and grumpy and Robert and the car fixing brothers continue to be unemployed. This is realistic as life rarely changes dramatically and by no means into an utopian state. Any transition into happiness is a gradual process and the movie reflects this.

Regardless of my love of the film, I did discern a few minor faults. The film was a little too hectic with numerous character's lives packed into the plot and left underdeveloped or unresolved. I particularly found it perplexing that Anny was not receiving help and compassion particularly when she appeared possibly dangerous with a homemade weapon and one of the themes of the film was healing. There were also too many quirky characters living in the one street and they all knew each others names which is unrealistic in today's culture. It reminded me too closely of the soap opera Neighbours. The welfare workers also did not look realistic, they were dressed tackily and comically rather than officially and their bumbling antics made them appear unthreatening. They also appeared shady and not the type of people to employ to work in the area of protecting children. Finally, as it was more of a quality, artistic film I would have preferred Amy's father to be a theatre or orchestra musician or, at least, in a virtually unknown band. A popular culture famous rock star somehow appeared unbefitting. Nonetheless, these problems were only slight and did not subtract from the overall beauty of 'Amy' as an outstanding instance of Australian cinema.


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