Evil Dead Rise Star Alyssa Sutherland Discusses The Mental State

New drama looks at how rural communities are bereft of resources

Alyssa Sutherland and Jance Enslin in The Mental State. The high school mental health drama is available on iTunes and VOD now.

Gun violence and mental health have become an either/or debate in American culture. But new drama The Mental State takes a more nuanced approach towards a tragedy in which it's easier for kids with mental health issues to get deadly weapons than to get treatment or support.

In the new film from writer/director James Camali, Evil Dead Rise star Alyssa Sutherland plays Dana Cady, a small-town sheriff and aunt to Andy (Jance Enslin), a high schooler who saves a bunch of children from a sniper. But the story he tells, of spotting and evading a killer, doesn't mesh with the facts on the ground, and she must contend with the possibility that the teen she cares for is in a very different kind of peril than the kind he believes.

“When you look at the statistics, globally, of school shootings and mass shootings, there’s an issue here in this country.” – Alyssa Sutherland
It's often said that the most powerful films speak to something universal, and in its depiction of the worst hardships of being a troubled teen, The Mental State will resonate globally. However, school shootings are an almost uniquely American plague, and that's a part of the story that stands out to the Australian Sutherland. “When you look at the statistics, globally, of school shootings and mass shootings, there's an issue here in this country,” she said. “I'm very proud of how Australia has taken control and has pretty strict gun laws. We reacted pretty quickly, and it hurts my heart that it's not the case here.”

What may be most heartbreaking is that this isn't a new phenomenon. However, there are an increasing number of films about school shootings that look beyond the sensational true-crime headlines, and try to make sense of these devastating events. “I grew up post-Columbine,” Camali said, “and I think storytellers around my age are starting to come into the ability to get films like that out there.”

Camali first became involved with the project when his wife, actress Remington Moses, showed him a play by her high school drama teacher, Josh Adell, written to be performed in schools, “to open up the conversation for high schoolers and faculty and parents.” The play's themes, especially "its compassion and empathy" for the complexities of these cycles of tragedy, appealed to him, and he saw ways to open up the smaller, more intimate stage version for the big screen. So he met with Adell, and they immediately hit it off, personally and creatively. “We're still friends to this day,” he said, “and we just showed the same desire and intention to tell a story like this, to cover things like teenage mental health, the lack of resources for a lot of families in rural areas, and families coming from lower economic status.”

And that isn't just restricted to communities in the middle of nowhere. “As soon as you get five, 10 miles out of some major cities, you're in the country,” Camali said. That shortage of resources doesn't just apply to social services, but also to filmmaking facilities. He credited producer Glen Trotiner, who died in 2022, with providing what they needed to make The Mental State in upstate New York and have it double for rural Kentucky. The director said, “Having spent a lot of time in Appalachia areas like Beattyville and Jackson, Kentucky, going to areas around Syracuse and 20 minutes outside of it, towns like Jordan-Elbridge, you just sort of pick and choose, and build your sets around that.”

“We’re all treading water, looking for a life raft, and we don’t know what that life raft is.” – Alyssa Sutherland
The only downside was the temperature difference. “Poor Alyssa had to be in cold upstate New York for a month," Camali said. “It gets very cold, quicker than you expect, and we had some shoots at an amusement park where we did not take into account the wind chill across the lake."

Sutherland laughed. Between gore-drenched horror movies like Evil Dead Rise and Blood Vessel, and four seasons as Norse queen Aslaug on History's Vikings, she said, “It's not often that I'm filming on just a warm, toasty set indoors.” However, she added, “I modeled for 15 years and was put in some pretty uncomfortable positions, both physically and emotionally, so acting is a welcome relief. We're very respected, and if the set is cold we have warming jackets, just off the side. The minute 'cut' is yelled, someone runs in and puts a coat over you. There are uncomfortable moments, but I really love what I do so it's really worth it."

“Plus,” she added, “I tend to be a little masochistic, and I like a hard day's work.” Especially when that hard work is in the service of a complicated character like Dana, who is struggling to keep her family together as it is plagued by suicide, depression, and alcoholism. “To factor in what she's been through, [I] found all of that really compelling to dig into,” she said. ”We're all treading water, looking for a life raft, and we don't know what that life raft is.”

The Mental State is available on iTunes and VOD now.

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Alyssa Sutherland, The Mental State, James Camali

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