I am much more interested in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete places and characters. I like the image of the brothers Dardenne…standing somewhere in the middle of industrial Belgium suburbia, looking around and saying, ‘All these landscapes make up our language (1).
– Alexander Horwath
It’s always easy to like a film that speaks your language. I have a soft spot for Vincent Giarrusso’s Mallboy (2000) partly because it’s set in Melbourne, the city where I’ve lived for most of my life. I recognise many of the locations used in the film, and I can vouch for the authenticity of its costumes and production design. Viewers outside of Australia obviously won’t be able to get this particular kick out of Mallboy, but at a time when Australian filmmaking is becoming increasingly ‘globalised’ – with Hollywood studios employing Australian resources to make films set in imaginary, composite cities – it’s surely more important than ever that local filmmakers strive to tell stories ‘from a concrete place, about concrete places and characters.’
Naturalism or social realism, however, is currently not the most critically popular style in Australian cinema, for several reasons. In practice, it’s often no style at all – a simpleminded refusal to think about problems of representation. Often, too, it flatters us by telling us what we already know, cueing us from the outset on how to respond to the characters and the familiar ‘social problems’ they represent. Working-class families, in particular, tend to be exhibited in Australian films like animals in zoos, enclosed in carefully constructed environments labelled as ‘typical’ of their primitive lives.
In summary, Mallboy might seem like more of the same. Shaun (Kane McNay), the mallboy of the title, is an unemployed fifteen-year-old whose life consists mainly of hanging out with friends at the local shopping centre, selling and taking drugs, and dodging his youth worker. The slight plot – which unfolds over around three days – centres on the homecoming of Shaun’s father, Pete (Brett Swain) who’s recently come out of prison and moved in with his new girlfriend. Both Shaun and his mother, Jen (Nell Feeney) are looking forward to Pete’s return, but their hopes are predictably misplaced.
There’s a lot of comedy in Mallboy, and Giarrusso is certainly not above getting laughs out of the sheer awfulness of his characters’ tastes and habits. Sometimes the jokes are blatant, as with the dingy shot that introduces Shaun’s bickering sisters slumped on the couch watching TV, with junk food wrappers, soft-drink bottles and ashtrays ranged around them. More often, humour sneaks in through the casual aggression of the dialogue, or an unobtrusive visual sarcasm. The scenes in the family home abound with mordant background details – we’re repeatedly made to notice the shelf full of plush soft toys in the living room, just above a couple of empty bottles of Jim Beam. The film’s anthropological glee hits its high-point in the set-piece party sequence, a celebration of bogan culture that culminates in Jen leading a raucous, knees-out dance to a Suzi Quatro song (‘the same lame dance she does every party,’ comments Shaun sourly, while all three of her offspring look on in disgust).
But despite some lapses, Mallboy is not a fundamentally snobbish comedy like The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) (or its close cousin, the abhorrent British sitcom The Royle Family). The characters are never merely grotesques, and we’re not detached enough from them to feel comfortably superior. Nor – although Giarrusso cites Ken Loach as an influence – is Mallboy a ‘social problem’ film with an obvious political axe to grind. Least of all is it a crowd-pleasing teen movie with a charismatic ‘rebel’ hero: Shaun remains a distant, passive character throughout.
Rather than any of these, Mallboy is much closer to what Horwath identifies (citing mainly European examples) as ‘the living tradition of neo-realism.’ Gilles Deleuze’s comments on the ‘new image’ inaugurated by neo-realism help explain why this tradition is so crucial to Mallboy:
The character has become a kind of viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts. … What constitutes this [new image] is the purely optical and sound situation which takes the place of the faltering sensory-motor situation. The role of the child in neo-realism has been pointed out … this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing (2).
This is a perfect description of Shaun, whose ‘motor helplessness’ is absolute. He’s small and physically childlike for his age – he looks half the size of Sue, his miserable sort-of girlfriend; there’s a slight moustache on his baby face he hasn’t yet bothered to shave off. Sullenly trapped between childhood and maturity, he shies away from both his mum’s kisses and Sue’s awkward attempts at seduction. He has little power, physical or otherwise, over anything that happens to him: he may evade authority, but he can’t seriously challenge it. With no ability to control his world and no stable past or future, he exists by default in an ongoing present tense. Thus his fractured daily experiences don’t fall into obviously interpretable patterns: instead, we encounter them as physically immediate ‘optical and sound situations’ rendered with bigger-than-life force and clarity (the sound design by Philip Brophy is crucial here). The great advantage of this approach is that it enables Mallboy to examine ‘concrete places and characters’ in a spirit of exploration – rather than merely patrolling territory that’s already been surveyed and conquered.
An early scene introduces us to the intense, unsettling quality of Shaun’s attention. He and his mates are laughing and jeering at their next-door neighbour: a crazy old man, stripped to the waist, performing what looks like some kind of weird callisthenics routine in his backyard. When he responds to their encouragement by pulling his pants down, the kids scurry away squealing: ‘Aw, a fuckin’ poofter freak!’ Only Shaun remains unmoved, and we get a close shot of his face as he gazes over the fence, transfixed by this mysterious scene.
Repeatedly throughout the film we return to a lingering image of Shaun gazing intently, his mind ticking away invisibly behind his eyes. What is he looking for? What is he thinking about? We’re rarely allowed to know. Kane McNay is often as deadpan as a Bresson hero, but then his morose stolidity is also a common Australian behavioural style. ‘Ordinary’ people, in general, are less expressive than professional actors, and the best praise of McNay’s award-winning performance is to say that you can barely see him acting at all. If he wasn’t already well-known for his role in the TV series SeaChange, you might assume that Giarrusso had pulled him off the street in the traditional neo-realist manner: you can spot kids like Shaun in any shopping centre in Melbourne, wearing the same Nike and Adidas gear and practiced vacant look.
Nell Feeney’s flamboyant performance seems consciously intended as a counterweight to McNay’s blankness. Feeney gets almost as much screen time as McNay, and in a sense she’s the real star of the movie: if Shaun rarely expresses his emotions, Jen can’t hold them back. A diva-like flightiness is central to her character, a loving but scatty single mum who had her first child in her mid-teens, works as a cleaner, and swings unpredictably between snappish burnout and little-girl fragility. Even her voice undergoes dramatic changes in register as she switches from yelling at the kids to cooing over a baby picture or anticipating her reunion with Pete. By middle-class standards, just about all her behaviour comes across as embarrassingly vulgar and over-the-top, but Feeney’s theatricality is rarely flattened into caricature. You soon realise, for example, that Jen’s incessant screeching and swearing doesn’t necessarily imply constant fury: it’s just the way members of this family are used to relating to each other.
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that if Shaun is good at absorbing sensory information, he’s even better at ignoring it. His ability to concentrate makes him a master of passive resistance. He shuts himself away in his room, tuned to the low roar of his video console, while elsewhere in the house the TV clamours and his sisters squabble over the remote control. (You sense the actors hugely enjoyed improvising these fights: ‘Get fucked!’ ‘Why don’t you get fucked?’ and so on, potentially for hours.) At the mall, there’s a lovely glimpse of Shaun standing in the midst of the hubbub and passing his hand over a cigarette lighter, his eyes fixed on the tiny flame as it hovers back and forth. A security guard approaches: ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’ Shaun’s jaw goes slack as he pulls his best cretin face: ‘Nuh.’
The mall provides the film’s most engulfing image-sound situations. For Shaun and his friends, the experience of the mall is exciting yet ordinary, risky (there are always officials and parents to be avoided) yet hypnotic, like moving around inside a giant video game. The low-key lyricism of these scenes is partly a matter of getting caught up in eddies of sound: drifting shoppers, clanking escalators, piped muzak, computerised vending machines that speak in milky electronic voices, INSERT COIN NOW. Visually Shaun’s progress is punctuated with scattered vignettes condensed into single shots, reminding us the mall is not just a hive of consumers but a haven for lost souls: three old men chatting on a bench, or a small Asian boy in a duffle-coat, walking round and round an ornamental palm tree. Like Shaun, he’s maintaining an absolute focus on a single task, taking things one step at a time.
The mall in Mallboy is readily identifiable as Northland Shopping Centre in Preston (3); Shaun’s home, we soon find out, is practically next door. One obvious point about Shaun’s ‘motor helplessness’ is that he gets around mainly on foot: compared to the varied, atomised geography of most narrative features, his world is small and easily mapped. Apart from Shaun’s home and the mall, there’s just one other important recurring space in the film, the nearby Darebin Parklands – the sprawling, derelict bush around the Darebin creek, scrawled with bike tracks, weeds and graffiti. If the mall connects Shaun with a larger social world, the parklands are a kind of transitional space, permitting secrets and contemplation. Shaun and his mates go down there to sniff glue, but the creek also runs alongside the home of Pete and his new girlfriend; alone for once, Shaun jogs by and watches from a distance as his father tinkers with a car in the early morning.
Crucially, the parklands in Mallboy aren’t just a device introduced by the script, but reflect the actual geography of Melbourne’s northern suburbs: a haphazard patchwork of industrial areas, shopping centres, cheap housing, and long ragged strips of bush. The film’s geographic logic, indeed, is remarkably precise: in real life, the carparks of Northland do border on the Darebin Creek, and Shaun could easily make his way down there in a few minutes. It may seem pedantic to insist on such mundane (or ‘pedestrian’) details, but attending to the geographical reality of the setting actually expands the film’s options rather than restricting them. The strategy of shuttling between several adjoining but distinct environments clearly sets Mallboy apart from, say, The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998), otherwise perhaps its closest relative in style and atmosphere. While Shaun’s situation may be bleak, we never feel he’s trapped in a closed entropic world where things can only get worse.
Park, mall, home: the film’s pulse can be felt in Shaun’s daily circuit between these three spaces, overlaid with the similarly soothing, repetitive rhythms of the film’s electronica-based score (which Giarrusso composed with his band the Underground Lovers). As with the anonymous pleasures of the mall – and as often in contemporary movies – the feeling sought is both numbing and energising, like running on a treadmill where your feet keep moving without conscious volition. At the high point of this cycle, the sensory overload experienced by Shaun induces a kind of oceanic feeling, tied to a recurring motif of upward movement. Twice in the film – once after sniffing glue, once when stoned – he falls into a trance where images from his daily life are transfigured: he sees himself riding alongside Sue to the top of an escalator in a paradisal shopping mall that glows with gauzy light.
Mallboy is a consciously ‘small’ film: it works best when it concentrates on mood, rhythm and detail, and is least successful when closest to conventional narrative. It’s not that the script is poorly constructed – it takes a couple of viewings to realise how densely the apparently casually arranged scenes link together. But the large-scale plot moves used to organise the action are sometimes dull and obvious. We can guess from the start that Sam’s ‘homecoming’ will be disappointing for both Jen and Shaun; Sam himself, when he finally arrives, is the film’s weakest major character, a type more than an individual (perhaps because Giarrusso can’t offer him much sympathy).
The ending, where Shaun chooses to return to a government-run ‘unit,’ has been criticised as falsely upbeat, and it’s true it provides an unconvincing solution to Shaun’s problems. But the point being made is certainly not about the value of state care – Shaun’s youth worker is the film’s designated buffoon, a bumbling young cadet who’s at best decent but ineffectual. If Shaun learns anything, it’s that he has to take responsibility for himself – a somewhat conservative if harmless message.
As for how Shaun might be helped along his way, I doubt Giarrusso knows, any more than I do. Ultimately Shaun’s misery seems to stem less from his age and economic status than from contemporary problems – lack of emotional support, aimlessness, a dependence on junk food and drugs – that affect people in all walks of life. It’s always easy to like a film that speaks your language. But one of the crucial facts about Mallboy is that a fair bit of its language (beginning with its title) isn’t exclusively local at all. There are shopping malls all across the planet, and probably many of them are filled with kids like Shaun – wearing the same clothes and playing the same video games. It depends on how you choose to look at what we’re shown. For me, as I’ve said, Mallboy is a film about a very specific place. For other viewers, I suspect, it might be a film about the oppressive anonymity of the whole modern world: like a single giant mall that spreads itself everywhere.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour, ‘Movie Mutations,’ Film Quarterly, vol. 52 no. 1, pp 39-54
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, 1989, The Athelone Press, London, p.3
- For a limited time, Melbourne audiences actually have the opportunity to see Mallboy at the Northland cinema complex itself.