Thank You For The Music: Coming Of Age in Muriel’s Wedding

Where would the adults, who once endured the awkward, tough and enlightening moments of adolescence, be without coming-of-age films? Where would the young people of today be?

From François Truffaut to John Hughes, Amy Heckerling to Hayao Miyazaki, movies about young people figuring themselves out have always held an irreplaceable role in cinema’s emotional appeal. They tell stories of self-discovery and growth, hardships and turmoil, of people trying to figure out who they are in a world they don’t fully understand. Through all the hilarity, heartache, and painful morality lessons, coming-of-age films are a cinematic comfort blanket ― delivering a cathartic release for those coming to terms with, for the first time, that they are not alone. Honesty, therefore, is essential for any film within the genre: fabrication otherwise feels like an outsider’s perspective: an experience that isn’t our own.

P.J. Hogan’s 1994 Australian cult classic Muriel’s Wedding might just be the most honest coming-of-age film ever made, which is ironic for a story about a pathological liar. Despite the connotations of its title, it refuses to be a romantic comedy, and Muriel’s diffident character doesn’t necessarily make it a traditional coming-of-age story either ― partially because the protagonist is well out of her teenage years at the start of the film. Instead, Hogan develops his debut film with a stark disinterest for form and convention, hacking a narrative path through Muriel’s self-consciousness and awkward demeanor. Muriel’s attachment to her fantasies lead her to the best and worst moments of her 20s, until she finds the right balance between the glitter and the grounded which leads her to a bright future.

Muriel’s Wedding was a milestone for the Australian industry, spinning box-office gold of around $60 million from a modest budget of $9 million, kickstarting the careers of beloved actresses Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths, as Muriel’s best friend Rhonda, and channelling the music of ABBA to create a memorable ode to the Swedish pop sensation (leading, naturally, to an acclaimed musical that is now touring the country!). But it wouldn’t be an Aussie classic without a strong sense of national identity, and Muriel’s hometown of Porpoise Spit ticks every box in Australian middle-class suburbia bingo. This is a town where everybody knows everybody, sunburns are a regular occurrence, and a town councilor bribes the coppers with a carton of beer. Porpoise Spit adheres to the common ‘daggy’ stereotype of Australia during the 90s, showcasing a distinct national ugliness that separates it from the grotesque white-picket-fence environs of American auteurs like Tim Burton or Joe Dante. Where other Aussie classics like The Castle (1997) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) ultimately find some redemption in the country’s ramshackle suburban and rural glory, the only solution for the moral backwaters of Muriel’s Wedding is escape. Hogan takes Muriel away from Porpoise Spit to the big capital of Sydney, showing foreign audiences that there is more to Australia than the tourist-ready country they’ve seen before, by presenting it from a country-born Aussie’s perspective.

At the heart of the film is the innocent and lovably idiosyncratic Muriel Heslop, played by Australian icon Toni Collette. For a film that never mocks the bleak tragedy of its undertones, and where realism is its greatest strength, a strong lead character is essential. Muriel delivers. She is the seminal Australian dork, with a wide goofy smile and a snorty laugh that encompasses her general state of awkwardness. Through the negative judgements and projections of other people, she’s in a constant state of conformity, second-guessing everything she does in order to stop being Muriel – which is particularly evident when she denies who she is to Rhonda at the island resort, hiding behind a pair of sunglasses after a humiliating encounter with her former ‘friends’. This desire to adhere to an inane social standard eventually formulates into ‘Mariel’; the new persona she creates to forget who she used to be, trying on fake wedding dresses and marrying South African swimmer David Van Arkle to live out her fantasies as somebody else. This only enhances her awkward aura ― she’s a ditzy yet delightful soul that has more to offer than her critics allow. Even when she’s in Sydney as Mariel, her dorky nature still lives within her, laughing uncontrollably while being undressed by parking inspector, lovestruck Brice Nobes (Matt Day), and gossiping across the street to the unrestrained, big-personality Rhonda.

Speaking of, can we talk about Rhonda for a minute? She is one of the forgotten 90s feminist icons; someone who refuses to follow rigid social expectations, and buoyantly spreads her confidence to help others ― a supporting character that bypasses all the cliches of supporting characters. She actively encourages Muriel to be herself, forming a friendship built entirely on trust (though it later backfires) and unconditional love. Further, Rhonda’s caring attitude quickly opens Muriel’s heart, as she reciprocates the love Rhonda has shown her ― evident when Muriel visits her in the hospital and helps her through her tough rehabilitation as she learns to walk again. Muriel and Rhonda’s performance of ‘Waterloo’ is one of my favourite scenes in all of cinema. It brings me sheer joy to see ABBA recreated down under, but it’s really Muriel’s progress that feels centre-stage, as her emotions shift over the duration of the song, from shy and reserved to euphoric and radiating ― all achieved with Rhonda by her side. This pivotal friendship in the film gives audiences the right amount of hope without artificial fabrication. And so Muriel’s Wedding feels like cinematic comfort food that roots a female friendship at its centre. Without the life-affirming relationship between Rhonda and Muriel, the film risks being entirely too cynical or isolating.

Hogan’s ability to tell the story of a young adult with great authenticity, and without being bound by the structural barriers of a traditional screenplay, is what makes Muriel feel like a real person. Hogan’s script feels formless and offbeat, opting for an episodic narrative that appears to lack any sense of trajectory until the film’s closing minutes, when Muriel finally realises the unhealthy nature of her lies, as she reconciles with Rhonda and leaves Porpoise Spit ― as her real self, no longer pretending to be someone else. It only seeks to prove that there are elements of Muriel in everybody. I’ve certainly been (and arguably still am) in a state of constant social awareness of everything I do, and unsure and insecure about who I am because of the discouraging reactions of others. If it were up to me, Muriel’s Wedding would be required viewing for teenagers everywhere.

A big reason for this is that Muriel’s Wedding never shies away from ideas of belonging and self-love, grounding the characters’ lives by offering realistic hardships for them to face. Muriel’s family dynamic is just one example of this. Led by an emotionally abusive father (Bill Hunter), the household is drenched in mundanity – where the children sit all day watching the cricket, and Betty Heslop (Jeanie Drynan) stands motionless in the kitchen as she makes a cup of tea in the microwave. Something clearly isn’t right, but Hogan doesn’t offer a sob story. Instead, the audience is placed at the center of this monotonous mockery of a nuclear household, trying to figure out how a family could turn out like this, or if they were always this way.

Early in the film, the Heslop family dines with a Japanese resort developer and his interpreter at a Chinese restaurant, ‘Rickshaw Room’, where Bill promotes his business. Traditionally, in scenes like this (one example being the family dinner scene in 2014’s Whiplash, where Andrew’s drumming career is substantially less valued than his cousins’ sporting goals), the parents would promote their other children’s achievements while leaving the protagonist out, thus highlighting their status as the black sheep. In the case of the Heslops, however, Bill firmly believes that all his kids are “useless”, and projects his insecurities and failures onto them. The family dynamic only spirals further when Betty takes her own life at the end of the film ― a climactic moment that pushes Muriel to realise the extents of her toxic household. This also serves as the cathartic denouement that leads Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit with Rhonda; freeing herself of the lies and anxiety that have bottled up inside of her, to do what Betty couldn’t do and make an honest life for herself, however painful the moment may be.

Betty Heslop remains one of the most tragic embodiments of loss I’ve ever seen on screen. Throughout the film, most dialogue directed towards her concerns who she used to be, like when Deidre Chamber exclaims “I bet you were a terror when you were 22”. She’s been suppressed to be someone that she isn’t: someone that Muriel might have become if she‘d stayed in Porpoise Spit, deluded by what lay outside that small-town reality. Betty’s two states of being are either complete devotion to her cheating husband, or a tragic sense of being lost. She doesn’t have anything else to fall back on. This is the life she carved for herself, perhaps unintentionally.

Muriel’s Wedding is a comedic cult classic, yet many seem to have neglected the darkness of Muriel’s story and the radical empathy shown towards her character. Striking the perfect balance between awkward humour and truthfulness, it rewards us with a satisfying and well-earned ending for Muriel, one that doesn’t promise a perfect life, but has the potential for improvement. Much like ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, a pop anthem that contains a deeper subtext underneath the glitz and glamour; a somber reflection of times gone by (or good times that never existed) and the yearning for the best moments of your life, Muriel’s Wedding is more than just a pick-me-up tragicomedy.

It’s about a young woman in a town looking for somebody to love her. But despite Rhonda, a wedding, and a hunky South African swimmer in need of a VISA, she comes to the realisation that the person she truly needs to love is herself.

You’re terrible, Muriel. I cannot think of a more honest, true-to-life protagonist, faults and all.

We love you.

Muriel’s Wedding is now streaming on Netflix Australia.

**********

George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @GeorgeKapaklis.

George Kapaklis

George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @GeorgeKapaklis.

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