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“Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.”

Lake Mungo begins with a tragedy – the drowning of 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker). It’s the result of a family trip to the local dam gone awry. There’s nothing particularly suspicious about the death. She became separated from her family and her emaciated – but untampered with – corpse washes up days later. What follows Alice’s death is her family’s struggle to understand who Alice was, what her reason for wandering off that day might have been, and whether or not she is finally at peace. Mother June (Rosie Traynor), father Russell (David Pledger) and brother Matthew (Martin SharPEp) – feeling something like grief, but more like guilt – enlist medium Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) to bring them long sought-after answers. However, the deeper they look, the less they want to know, particularly when they learn of the horrifying discovery Alice made on a camping trip to Lake Mungo – and giving us one of the all-time scariest sequences in movie history.

Apologies to Samson and Delilah, Mary and Max and Balibo: the one true great Australian film of 2009 was easily Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo, a mournful, dreamlike examination of the hole left in the heart of a family after a death. I’m apprehensive to describe Lake Mungo as a mockumentary; such a designation just feels too ‘This Is Spinal Tap’-y. However, Anderson does indeed structure his fictional film like a documentary; one of those SBS docos you might stumble across late one Friday evening, full of charcoal-scorched landscapes and melancholy grey skies. It’s deliberately paced, but consistently terrifying. Anderson restrains this troubling tale, making it feel realistic even when it collides with the supernatural in the film’s final reel.

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*Mild spoilers ahead.*

Some may argue that the film is too ambiguous; that it raises too many plot threads, only to leave them unresolved or abandoned outright (and yes, that includes the deserves-to-be-immortal sequence at Lake Mungo). But I say that’s reading it all wrong. The movie is not about what Alice did, why she did them, or even what she saw at the titular locale. It’s about her seemingly-innocent family, and the price they pay for not knowing their daughter’s pain. It’s only after her death that they wish to know who Alice really was. The answers frighten them, not because they are scary, but because they are irrevocable. They believe Alice is haunting them, only to discover that they are haunting themselves (quite literally, in fact). With the image of their daughter shattered and their guilt incurable, they abandon their mission to delve into her past and move away from home, leaving Alice and her demons unexplained. Ironically, they can’t even see their own son – whose odd relationship with Kemeny is also left unexplored – is heading in the same direction. They don’t know Matthew. And after learning the truth about Alice, it’s likely they won’t ever bring themselves to learn his secrets either. What at first seems like frustrating ambiguity turns out to be the film’s heartbreaking souvenir. We are left with the same questions as her family, as well as the knowledge of Alice’s tragic existence. The worst of both worlds, if you will.

*Serious spoilers ahead.*

It’s interesting to note that the horrible spectre Alice encounters at Lake Mungo is her own corpse, or at least a prescient vision of it (one that handily could be recorded on a phone’s camera). Aside from the sequence’s genius execution – you literally have no idea what is approaching Alice until its right in your face – it delivers the movie’s one true revelation like a lightning bolt: the family did not know Alice, they never will, and they could not save her despite all signs pointing to doom.

I don’t believe that this image drove Alice to suicide; I don’t even think she killed herself. She was alerted of her own impending death, and was forced to march towards it alone. Why was she sent the vision? Perhaps precisely so she could record it. Alice was a lost girl before she went to Lake Mungo and long before she wandered away at the dam (not that her family had noticed.) They may not have been haunted by Alice, but they were most certainly compelled to unearth her secrets due to their own guilt (a haunting in itself). Perhaps the great equaliser up above (or down below) set in motion a series of events to lead them to Alice’s phone. They want to know who their daughter was? “Here she is!” A rotting corpse, clear as day, long before Alice had even passed away.