SIFF Review: Poppy Shakespeare

2009 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL FEATURE!
Un-rated
90 minutes
Cowboy Films

***

Welcome to the Nut House. Our guide, known simply as N, is a career outpatient nutter, living off British government-provided “Mad Money” and a happy hour cocktail of anti-psychotic medications. A bit of a loner, she’s clearly comfortable with the life she’s carved out. It’s not until she meets a new, reluctant patient named Poppy Shakespeare that she starts to question her routine and the policies at Dorothy Fish Day Hospital.

N begins by telling us, “It weren’t my fault, what happened to Poppy,” so straight away we know something bad is going to happen to the vivacious woman who is brought to the Dorothy Fish against her will. Poppy claims she took a test as part of a job interview and the next thing she knew, she was in the loony bin. She certainly seems sane enough. But then again, we’re seeing this entire tale through the eyes of a potentially unreliable narrator. After all, N is a mental patient, even if she is working the system.

Poppy and N strike up an unlikely friendship after N is assigned to show Poppy the ropes. In the process of helping Poppy prove her sanity, they uncover a tragic Catch 22. In order to hire a mental health lawyer to prove she’s not crazy, Poppy must receive Mad Money. In order to receive Mad Money, she must prove she is crazy. N must teach Poppy a skill that she’s perfected for years – how to act loony. Even without N’s forewarning, we know this can’t end well.

It may be called “Poppy Shakespeare,” but this is really N’s story. She doesn’t talk much about her past, but that’s probably because there isn’t much to tell. She goes to meetings, grabs her drugs, and goes on her merry way. She doesn’t have to work. She doesn’t have much of a social life. It’s the same thing every day. Once a year, in order to stay in the program, she must really pour on the crazy for a panel assessment. She’s a professional. But when Poppy’s attempts to prove her sanity start to take a real toll on her mental state, everything changes for N. Our protagonist starts to realize just how crazy she’s not. Tragically, N’s tutelage is a bit too effective for Poppy’s own good.

“Poppy” takes a cue from early Mike Leigh films, depicting the dark side of London with muted tones and apocalyptic speeches. The colors are especially engaging when they contrast with occasional brightness, such as N’s pallid, makeup-free face against her signature red coat. Poppy starts out so vibrant, strong and sweet that you become as smitten with her as N. It’s heartbreaking when things don’t go according to plan.

The supporting cast of crazies does dip into the realm of cliché. They seem to be trying too hard and their paranoid rants are fairly tedious. I couldn’t help but gloss over during the scenes they dominated. Then again, maybe that’s the point. After so many years dealing with those people, perhaps N has begun to tune them out as well. It’s difficult to know what the real story is when you’re seeing things through the eyes of a mental patient.

On the whole, the film is emotional, weird, and occasionally beautiful. It’s painful watching these two women attempt to navigate a system that seems more interested in statistics than in the people it was designed to help. It’s not a groundbreaking film by any means and it doesn’t quite hit all its marks, but you’d have to be mental not to find something to like about “Poppy Shakespeare.”

 

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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