Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Piper Laurie's 80th birthday.
Director: Michael Pate. Cast: Piper Laurie, Mel Gibson, Alwyn Kurts, Pat Evison, Deborah Kennedy, David Foster, Brenda Senders, Peter Gwynne, Allan Penney, Michael Caulfield, Margo Lee. Screenplay: Michael Pate (based on the novel by Colleen McCullough).
Twitter Capsule: Laughably juvenile technique props up salacious agendas that only gradually emerge. Rudimentary as art but deliciously bizarre.

Photo © 1979 Australian Film Commission/Pisces Productions
Allow me a slightly incongruous prologue, since Tim is all about ending up somewhere very, very different from where you think you started.

I don't know what they teach at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School, but together with Poland and France, that country produces, for my money, the best cinematographers in the world. In particular, if you want to film a living room, a suburban street, or a sun-splashed landscape in a way that avoids the most obvious "atmospherics" but still communicates tension, menace, mystery, or secret agendas, hire an Australian. We've all enjoyed recent reminders of this remarkable national trademark in full-daylight thrillers like Animal Kingdom, The Square, and Snowtown. The dissimilar but crackling unease in the widescreen, naturally lit frames of Jindabyne give that remarkable movie an entirely different, queasier access into the same story than Robert Altman even tried for in adapting the same events as one strand of Short Cuts. I've noticed at film festivals and on juries that I can usually distinguish an Australian short within four or five shots, before anybody even says anything. Even a drama as relatively low-key as Paul Cox's Cactus, which I reviewed this summer when I was time-machining back to the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, uses images and expert sound mixing, another Aussie strength, to create a sensory and psychological environment that an American film with the same budget and script, even if filmed in Australia, would probably never consider.

I say all this because the opening scenes of Tim are so indifferently shot and so sitcom-bright that I realized with a start that I'd never really seen Australia or Australian cinema look this way. I didn't know Tim's premise, just that the film debuted Down Under about three months after the first Mad Max did in 1979, rocketing Mel Gibson to superfame, and earning him the AFI award for this performance. Based on the Disney Channel palette and the juvenile scoring, all pan flutes and comic slide-whistles for no particular reason, I got ready to Learn Something About Life, the way you do in those movies where some girl called Christy or Rebecca or Anne stands around in tall-grass or in front of church-shaped schoolhouses, sporting a lot of long-sleeved gingham and wearing her goodness like sunblock, right there on the outside. One glimpse at this movie, and not only would I not have guessed its Australian origin, but I prepared myself for an entirely subtext-free experience.

You gather in short order that Tim Melville, the teenager played by Gibson, is what lots of movies refer to as "sensitive," "simple," "different," or, in his father's more colorful phrase, "not the full quid." We're a hair shy of Forrest Gump territory, but Tim's work of tending yards and maintaining homes, in which context we initially meet him, reveals itself as a compromise vocation for a young, bright-eyed boy-man of otherwise limited capacities. He cannot read, cannot easily think, cannot distinguish an American accent from an Australian one, and cannot recognize condescension or manipulation. He loves the world, Simply. Gibson has even worked out an overly deliberative walk for this bouncy, congenial naïf, so as to broadcast how putting one foot in front of the other is the kind of thing that can occupy most of Tim's entire frontal lobe at one time. Piper Laurie (The Hustler, Carrie) arrives early, too, as Mary Horton, the single, middle-aged, school-marmish woman who sees Tim finishing up some home-repair project for her next-door neighbor and hires him to do some odd jobs for her. With everything in place, including a totally de-sexed teacher-confidant, we settle in for a less pastoral Mel of Avonlea, or some life-affirming combination of Charly and Gibson's own directorial debut, The Man without a Face. Except the mentor in this one, instead of being disfigured, is just, you know, a middle-aged woman, which commercial filmmakers have a bad habit of treating as the same thing.

Mel doesn't wear a lot of gingham. In fact, he doesn't wear a lot of anything, which is not only something that Mary notices but something that she appears, through passive manipulation, to enjoy and even encourage. She preserves the general aura of the beaming, suburban benefactress—the kind of woman who will teach The Simpleton to read using The Wind in the Willows, and who will cup his cheek maternally as she explains to him what death is. Still, the more camp-minded spectators of Tim will not fail to notice how much this gal enjoys sauntering out to her patio in huge, vodka-hangover sunglasses, ostensibly to enjoy a paperback but surely to watch her sweet-souled, azure-eyed handyman slave over a smoking lawnmower in his short-shorts. We know she's noticed. Literally the only thing Mary's neighbor tells her when recommending Tim's services in the first scene is, "Good looking, isn't he? Not over-bright, mind you, but a nice kid." We also know the movie is capable of irony, since the book Mary pretends to peruse before inviting Tim over for some tea and cream-cakes is The Thorn Birds, the blockbuster soap-opera by Colleen McCullough, whose first novel was Tim. ("Good book?" The Simpleton inquires. "Yes, it's very interesting," says Piper Laurie.) After he's done working, she invites him inside, to see her books. As part of that invitation, she's also left out some towels for him, and urges him to shower. That seems a little odd, but only a little. By this point, I was still assuming that some good-humored queens behind the scenes, the same ones who thought Piper Cover-Your-Dirtypillows! Laurie was intuitive casting for this beatific nurturer, were having a laugh by filling this family film with as many reasons as possible to get their male ingénue out of his clothes. As Michael DeAngelis has written, albeit without saying a lot about Tim, Gibson's early star persona had considerable overlaps with what queer eyes might eagle-spot as gay iconography—and this wasn't even something that the star, in his youth, appeared to object to.

But then Mary calls Tim at home. Over the phone, in front of his impassive parents and his disbelieving sister, he accepts her invitation to spend a weekend at the beach with her, alone. She thinks he'll get a kick out of it, and he (so Simple!) agrees. They arrive, Wind in the Willows in tow. In the blink of an eye, he's in his cobalt-blue speedo, carrying beach-chairs for both of them. Mary joins him, dressed in a full-bodied, dark indigo, Saudi-style robe, covering her ankles and her wrists, stopping just shy of the jawline, where her headscarf and sunglasses and broad-brimmed hat complete her ensemble. She looks like a drag queen called Sharia Law, or as though she's intent on bringing a little bit of Lion in Winter to New South Wales. Mel frolics in the surf, and she watches him. Fixedly.

From this point forward, if it hasn't already, Tim comes close to reproducing the plot of Doubt, in negative-space fashion. That is, for this go-round, we spend all our time with the uncomprehending kid (if he is uncomprehending?) and with Piper, his teacher-nurturer-desirer, in the Philip Seymour Hoffman part. She seems entirely convinced, as Hoffman was, that her attentions are erotically disinterested. Or if they're not, she's definitely not telling. Tim's parents fulfill the Viola Davis role to a fare-thee-well, and his alarmed, recently affianced sister Dawnie (Deborah Kennedy) is Sister Aloysius, with even fewer people minding her than listened to that angry nun. "What does she see in Tim, anyway?" Dawnie asks, finding it very strange that a single woman who occasionally tosses Tim a few bucks to trim the hedges is constantly skirting him off on private, swimsuity adventures, teaching him to read, keeping him at her house, and never once introducing herself to the family or, indeed, showing her face where they live. It all smells very Sandusky to her, but all Dad's got to say, Viola-style, minus the jaw-clenching and tear-streaked ambivalence, is, "She's good to him, that's all I know." Whether Dad has a fundamentally different read on the scenario than his daughter does, or whether he's simply untroubled by the same possibilities she is so angrily deducing, the film does not make clear.

In either case, the ABC Family photography, editing, music, and performance style start to seem like the most subversive possible aesthetic Tim could have chosen. The mediocrity of the filmmaking is profound, and not even worth itemizing in detail; I can't remember a single shot, edit, or soundtrack choice that struck me as creatively inspired. Still, this evident superficiality, even if it evinces the limitations of the filmmakers more than a fully deliberate strategy, is itself, by far, the most enthralling thing about Tim. Based on a novel so beloved it would later be remade for American TV, the movie simply proceeds with its rosy sunsets, its cooing gulls, its After School Special atmosphere, and its nighttime heart-to-hearts between Tim and Mary, where she explains in her secluded cottage that Tim shouldn't weep about his sister getting married, because she's not doing it to hurt him, or to leave him behind. He remains disconsoled, because he's not ready to lose Dawnie, just as he would never want to lose Mary, who keeps advancing up his personal and quite literal popularity charts: "I've decided I like you better than anyone except Mum and Dad, even my sister Dawnie!" he enthuses. Mary chuckles and accepts the compliment.

The age difference between Mary and Tim, once we start suspecting the film is moving into romantic territory, is astonishing enough, at least by the standards of commercial filmmaking. Laurie was 47 when Tim came out, literally twice the age of her 23-year-old co-star—and four years older, in other words, than Glenn Close would be when she later played Gibson's mother in Zeffirelli's Hamlet. Tim's undiagnosed Simplicity makes things still stranger, as though Sally Field had spent Forrest Gump popping chocolates in Hanks's mouth instead of philosophizing about them, and maybe sucking his toes behind closed doors. But as Tim grows more bizarre—more obviously invested in serving up this gorgeous but borderline-autistic twink as a lover and pet for his dotingly tender Svengali—the casting of Piper Laurie only ripens the air of perverse implication. Famously typecast as dipsomaniacs (The Hustler, Days of Wine and Roses) and plain old maniacs (Carrie), her presence cannot help but confirm our suspicions, once we have hatched them. Imagine, if you will, making a movie with Michael Douglas around 1993, post-Fatal Attraction, post-Basic Instinct, in which he hires a vaguely handicapped girl played by early-90s Winona Ryder to paint his house and mow his lawn in her sports bra and Daisy Dukes. Then he takes her away from her family for a beach weekend, just for the two of them, and watches her dance in the surf in her bikini while he sits in a full-length bisht and gobbles her up, quasi-paternally, with his eyes. And now imagine that all of this was dressed, lit, mixed, scored, and cut together by the crew who made The Wonder Years, or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Tim never improves as a piece of filmmaking. Without being in any way a debacle, it's never even good as a piece of filmmaking, and remains the only directing credit for Michael Pate, who logged over 150 acting credits in film and television before his death at 88. It grows more interesting only because it drops the veil more and more steadily that Mary has been sensually drawn to Tim virtually from the moment she met him. Yet still, the movie does this in such a way that you can't work out her own thought-process, or the filmmakers', or the target audience's. Even in a culture that crows endlessly about how "the innocence of our children" must be defended at all costs—from real and imaginary adversaries, to the point of constraining the freedoms of adults—younger kids than Tim, mostly but not exclusively girls, are routinely sexualized by beauty pageants, advertisements, media programming, and youth-market clothing lines. Tim presents two possible readings in relation to this remarkable and durable doublethink. In one version, Mary Horton is a perfect distillation of the hypocrisy I'm describing, making a keen play for Tim's body while convincing herself that, by her stars, she's just reaching out to a foggy kid who needs a friend. In the second, Mary is a self-aware chicken-hawk who thinks she needs to play the innocent-mentor angle and ride it out patiently in order to get what she wants. My guess is that Tim was made by people who feel the second way about its plot, but have manicured and airbrushed it for ready consumption by thousands (millions?) of people whom they imagine will feel the first way. Or maybe Tim's own makers thought they were making a sweet, uncomplicated love story? It certainly isn't a movie that offers nudges and winks to a camp or skeptical audience, while it goes about stoking the naïveté of a more sentimental fanbase.

Unabashed spoilers from here on out, because Tim's plot is more fabulous than any metacommentary, and once you start watching it from this perspective, it becomes hilarious, and deeply weird. The family keeps phoning Mary with different reasons to beg her to take Tim off their hands: he can't handle a wedding! he can't handle a funeral! oh, please, furtive chaperone, spirit our child away! Pate and his design team are always careful to shoot Mary during these solicitation scenes in ways that augment our sense of her sterility and indifference, either at her uproariously abstract "job" (she has a Desk and passes Files to a Co-worker, while she wears big, serious-lady Glasses) or in totally de-eroticized long shots inside her house. Meanwhile, Tim's mom begs from her deathbed, after taking forever to have the heart attack we know is coming, that her husband "do... what's best... for Tim!" After she dies, and Mary shows up to fetch Tim from home—the first time, incidentally, that any of the Melvilles have met her, and the first time Dawnie gets to pop off with one of her "Brazen Hussy!" monologues—the crafty gal literally cackles in self-satisfaction once she's got Forrest Tim in the car. Pate cuts to the next scene without explaining this odd laughing/crying reaction of Mary's. It only makes sense, though, as the outburst of someone who thought she'd need a royal flush in order to claim the huge pile of chips on the table before her, and then discovers that even with nothing better than two 7's in her hand, all the stupid competitors surrounding her are happy to fold. Dad, especially: he starts thinking mortal thoughts, because he just can't live without his late wife. He asks if Mary will be there to comfort Tim once he's an orphan. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist she consults about placing Tim in a home for the disabled thinks that, actually, it would be a much better idea for her to marry the boy. Tim, furious with jealousy upon seeing Mary befriend his father, initiates their first kiss. The movie's demure about this at first, shooting from the back of both actors' heads, but then it cuts to a close-up on the lip-lock and holds for a full, strenuous minute, before Mary breaks it off with one of those full-on howls of the guilt-racked sinner that we knew Piper Laurie was capable of. She marries him anyway. Someone reads from the Song of Solomon, and we hear woodwinds. They fuck. We literally hear a harp. Tim, shirtless in bed, sits up crying at night because... well, he's so happy! Mary finally wears an actual bathing suit to the beach instead of a burqa. Dad dies while they're honeymooning—possibly at the very moment they're having sex. Dawnie's still pissed at this second funeral, and not just because plot machinations have required her to lose both her parents in short order. Mary is dressed as a Halloween witch and peers up wickedly at Dawnie while tilting her brow forward, just like the cat who got all the cream. Tim begs his sister to call off the attack and they all walk off together, semi-reconciled, Dawnie's high-society husband included, among the crowd of tombstones. The movie fades out to a hue of Derek Jarman blue.

If this sounds like a family movie to you, I'm eager to hear more of your thoughts about family. There's a very long tradition of this kind of thing in Hollywood, albeit usually with the sexes reversed. Still, not since Nell, when Natasha Richardson encouraged Liam Neeson to get naked and skinny-dip with Jodie Foster, so that she'd quit with the whole "post-traumatic terror of men" thing, have I seen a case quite this flagrant. And even at that, Jodie and Liam were more or less the same age, and in the movie, as in life, he wound up with Natasha, not her. So Piper makes off with more here than I ever thought Piper Laurie would make off with in any movie—strewing the smallest handful of lustful smirks along the way to suggest that the actress, at least, found this all a bit ripe. Gibson looks about as clued-in as Charlton Heston does to Stephen Boyd's googly eyes in Ben-Hur. What does he think now? What did Colleen McCullough think? What about the Australian masses, who made this such a huge hit? Who still watches Tim? People who thought movies got too cynical after Shirley Temple was no longer famous, or people who have the DVD sandwiched on their shelves between Absolutely Fabulous and The Adventures of Priscilla? And most pressingly of all: what if all the Viola Davises in this case are right? Is there anything really, fundamentally wrong with Mary Horton keeping a reassuring arm wrapped around Tim's shoulder, and wrapped around his everything, if it's what he wants so badly? Because it sure is hard to begrudge any movie where Piper Laurie scores pre-nuthouse Mel Gibson, by whatever means necessary. If the Remake Whistle gets blown again, I just hope Kathy Bates's agents have Zac Efron's number.

Tim, in its way, provokes as many questions as whatever happened to those girls at Hanging Rock. Its version of family values is as off-center as the ones in Sweetie and Animal Kingdom. It's got zero qualities as a piece of filmmaking that allow for any grade above the bare-minimum average, and yet the last word I expect to ever associate with Tim is "average." Grade: C

P.S. Piper Laurie's memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, includes a passage on the making of Tim that builds to a slow, salacious, will-they-or-won't-they boil (pp. 274-279), just like Tim does. An amazingly apt digestif if you've just watched the movie, or just read this review. Go get it, Piper! (Read the page or two before this, also, to learn how hard Piper finds it to project the right look on TV when you're losing an Oscar. You can already guess who she thinks is the reigning master of this look.)

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