(USA 2016)

I had the wrong idea walking into Mad; the synopsis in the festival guide painted a picture of a mean-spirited comedy about two fighting sisters and their mother who just had a nervous breakdown. I expected something along the lines of a loud, riotous snarkfest brimming with angry, deranged female humor that someone like Bette Midler might have done. Mad is not that at all—it’s far better.

First-time screenwriter and director Robert G. Putka drops us into the lives of three women: Mel (Maryann Plunkett), a lady starting her sunset years who just had a nervous breakdown following her divorce; her older daughter, Connie (Jennifer Lafleur), who has all the trappings of a yuppie life; and her younger daughter, Casey (Eilis Cahill), who is floundering as she quickly approaches her thirties. Mad explores the dynamics of the relationships between them without judgment or moralty, and gets into mental illness on the side.

The characters here are flawed, which makes the film not just believable but good. Very good. Mel may or may not be “crazy,” but she doesn’t step up to take control of her fate—which is exactly how she ends up committing herself to a psych ward. Connie is caustic—judgmental, condescending, insensitive, and extremely vocal, she can’t keep her malicious comments to herself. For some reason, her mother and her sister bring out her worst. A work situation involving a criminal investigation shows how far from perfect she really is. Casey is sweet but aimless, seemingly lacking any street smarts or ambition. She’s stuck—she tries to find herself in things like webcams, online hookups, and writing groups. It’s not working.

This all might sound heavy, but Mad has a sense of humor. An uncomfortable scene at Casey’s writing club is laugh-out-loud funny, but Putka generally doesn’t go for easy laughs. The humor here for the most part is subtle and has a basis in etiquette and social behavior. A fellow patient, Jerry (Mark Reeb), and the ward counselor, Todd (Conor Casey), both provide comic relief in different ways without becoming caricatures. The acting is quite good, and the whole thing is put together exceedingly well.

Putka doesn’t give much background on his characters, and that’s fine because it really isn’t necessary. He doesn’t treat mental illness like a Lifetime movie; he’s direct, objective, and not all that dramatic about it. He comes off a bit cynical, but I found his presentation refreshing; after all, therapy doesn’t work for everyone. I liked so much about Mad, which has many moments of brilliance. I hope to see more by Putka.

(Capitol Theatre) B+

Cleveland International Film Festival

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