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Naughties Throwback: Exploring Identity, Family, and Mental Health in Looking for Alibrandi

NB: This post contains film spoilers and mention of suicide.

The Australian film Looking for Alibrandi (2000) is a coming-of-age story that delves into the complex and intertwined themes of cultural identity, family and mental health. The film follows the life of Josie Alibrandi (Pia Miranda), a year 12 student who is struggling to find her identity as a young woman of both Sicilian and Australian heritage as she embarks on adulthood.

Josie and her family have been viewed as social outcasts due to Josie’s mother Christina (Greta Scacchi) being an unmarried parent, a taboo status in the conservative Sydney Sicilian community, and Josie being from a lower socioeconomic background, unusual at her private girls’ school and a frequent source of ridicule there. Josie’s nonna Katia (Elena Cotta) frequently talks about the “family curse” that started when Christina became pregnant with Josie as a teenager, the catalyst for Christina's father to kick her out of home. This narrative about Josie's arrival in the world strongly influences how she sees herself, and she has a strong desire to overcome the "curse" through chasing material success.

In the film, Josie struggles to reconcile her cultural heritage with her desire to be seen as a modern, independent woman. In the film, she asks herself of her Sicilian community, "This might be where I come from, but do I really belong here?” This internal conflict is a common experience for many young people, and can be particularly common for those with mixed cultural heritage. I believe this film has become an Aussie classic in part because of how it portrays this inner tension in a relatable and realistic way.

Josie also experiences internal conflict between her naturally rebellious personality and her desire to become a high-profile lawyer, telling herself before embarking on her final year of high school “I’m going to be a saint this year… and for once in my life I’m going to stick to it”. The viewer quickly learns that Josie has a history of truancy and misbehaviour, and not long into the film, she breaks this promise to herself by hitting her bully in the face with a book and breaking her nose! The film does an excellent job of conveying the reasons behind Josie’s challenging behaviours – unresolved anger about family issues, being bullied and, later in the film, grief.

Josie’s internal conflict is externalised through her attraction to two different people – Jacob (Kick Gurry) who shares some of Josie’s roots, being from a lower socioeconomic background, embracing his own rebellious tendencies and having also grown up in a single parent household, and John (Matt Newton), who comes from a high profile, wealthy political family, always looks polished and is a high achiever academically. John’s character is the catalyst for the film’s exploration of mental health and identity, as the immense family pressure John experiences eventually culminates in his suicide, which plunges Josie into a state of grief, isolation and confusion.

John’s death to suicide is a powerful lesson to Josie that material success is not necessarily equated with happiness, and in some instances creates a burden of expectation and pressure than can, for some, be unbearable. John’s death deeply shifts Josie’s perspective on her own life - at the film’s beginning she was chasing all the things that John’s family already possessed, such as status, attention, and political success, however, by the end, her focus and definition of success was quite different.

Family is another important theme in Looking for Alibrandi. Josie's relationship with her family is complex and at times difficult. She struggles to connect with her mother, who is often preoccupied with her own problems, and feels disconnected from her biological father Michael (Anthony LaPaglia), who was not part of her life until his recent return to Sydney, because her mother did not tell Michael that she gave birth to Josie, rather than getting the abortion she said she was going to before Michael left Sydney.

Despite these challenges, throughout the film Josie comes to understand the importance of family and culture, and the role it has played in shaping her identity, even events that happened multiple generations ago, such as her nonna being “dragged off the dance floor and dumped in the bush” by her nonno when they migrated to Australia.

Looking for Alibrandi had an impact on me as a teenager living in Sydney not only because it was an excellent adaptation of an Australian novel that I loved, but it portrayed experiences that were closer to my own than any other film had. Like me, Josie attended a very religious Sydney private girls’ school, was raised Catholic, had mixed Australian and Italian background, and had thick, dark eyebrows (a physical feature I hadn’t seen in many female lead characters back then, and had therefore led me to categorise my eyebrows as ugly). Though my own experiences of having an Australian-Italian heritage and attending a religious private girls’ school were different to Josie’s, to even have these experiences seen as important enough to portray on screen made my personal experiences feel more important to the wider world, which was a new feeling for me.

Now that I am a trained psychologist, I can understand how important these processes are for developing a strong sense of identity, and cultivating healing and empowering personal narratives so that we can work through internal conflicts and difficult life experiences. This highlights the importance of diverse representation of life experiences on screen, and giving diverse creators equal access to platforms to share their work. Viewing our own experiences from an observer perspective can powerfully shift our views and attitudes towards ourselves, and see new possibilities for our lives.

All images in this post were taken from Looking for Alibrandi, Robyn Kershaw Productions, 2000


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