The Australian film Angel Baby is about the love affair between a young man and a young woman, both attractive and intelligent, and both afflicted with fairly severe mental illness--when they meet, they compare slash scars on their wrists. The sweet-souled, exuberant Harry (John Lynch) sees Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie) in his day program, and it's love at first sight. "She's fiery and passionate and mysterious," he enthuses to the kind, patient brother and sister-in-law (Colin Friels and Deborra-Lee Furness) with whom he lives.
Harry and Kate spend their first date watching Wheel of Fortune through a storefront window, while she shows him how to receive secret messages through the puzzle solutions from a guardian angel she calls "Astral." They begin an intense sexual affair, and soon after, they move in together. Harry goes back to work as a computer programmer, and Kate does laundry for the building. Then come the complications: Kate gets pregnant, and Harry insists that both of them quit taking their medication.
The latter decision--maddeningly common among outpatient sufferers of mental illness--leads to some turbulent and pretty convincing scenes of decompensation on the part of both. Make no mistake, this ain't Benny & Joon or House of Cards or Don Juan DeMarco or any of those films that indulge in the loathsome Hollywood notion that mental illness is nothing more than misunderstood nonconformity.
The USC-educated director, Michael Rymer, seems to have some feel for the hard reality of day-to-day life with a psychological disorder. In one scene, Harry and Kate argue with a K mart clerk because they want to pay the full price instead of a sale price for a crib--the numbers of the higher price somehow amount to a better sign. It's a perfect dramatization of the pitilessness with which compulsions can hound one's thoughts and actions. Movies often forward the sentimental idea that craziness is liberating; Angel Baby is aware of its exhausting rigors.
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Still, the film, which has been much honored down under, has a bit stronger whiff of questionable romanticism than one might hope for. Like Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, another superbly made work about the love lives of the ecstatic mad, Rymer's film ultimately caves in to the idea that the obsessive belief system of the main characters really is spiritually transcendent.
I'm as unwilling as von Trier or Rymer to discount the miraculous from human experience, but after working as a counselor in mental-health group homes for several years, I find the equation of mental illness with spiritual vision a sophistry. A hurtful sophistry at that--it helps to perpetuate the belief that mental illness isn't really illness at all.
This concern aside, there's no denying the power of Rymer's direction, or of the performances he got out of his leads. Lynch, memorable in The Secret of Roan Inish and In the Name of the Father, makes Harry's appeal--the gentle, quiet force of his charm--heartbreaking. McKenzie, of Romper Stomper, uses her piercing gaze and wary, arm's-length sexiness to justify the depth of Harry's feeling for Kate. And Friels, Furness and Daniel Daperis as their young son--who, of course, adores Harry--bring touching dimension to their underwritten roles. They make a compelling case for sanity.
Directed by Michael Rymer; with John Lynch and Jacqueline McKenzie.