AACTA Film Fest | Suburban Negligence: Coming of Age in Australia
Article by Sydney Film Fest host Blake Howard.
David Michôd’s breakout debut ANIMAL KINGDOM begins with a scene of deafening silence. Josh Cody (James Frecheville) sits stupefied, glued to the game show DEAL OR NO DEAL as his mother is treated of a fatal overdose. It’s a sequence that instantaneously fires the most primal of emotions. You want to shout at the screen, “what is wrong with this kid?” But then something happens. As you struggle to squash your inclination to scream the question aloud, it dawns that this may not be the apathy of a self-involved teen. To be so calm and casual in the face of something so traumatic, your stomach fills with a sickening dread. How many times has this happened before?
The best coming of age films - in the last decade the THE WAY, WAY BACK leaps out - squeeze the protagonist between antagonistic adult forces and idealised “big kid” role models (Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell respectively). The tension between those two forces is ultimately the guiding force. Coming of age films in Australia, compared to those in USA, aren't quite so sentimental. Aussie films in the genre consistently find ways to entangle the two, leaning our young protagonists into moments of discomfort in their formative years that either shape you or break you. In 2018, that’s no different.
In amongst AACTA’s crop of top-notch 2018 feature films in competition, Jeff (Atticus Robb) must navigate the “shag or be shagged” sexual mischief of Stephan Elliott’s suburban farce SWINGING SAFARI. Pikelet (Samson Coulter) becomes a neoprene-clad disciple in Simon Baker’s spiritual surf journey BREATH. Alex (Ty Perham) jumps in the family car for some negligent daddy day care in Jason Raftopoulos’ WEST OF SUNSHINE. What this trio shares is that they'll be defined by the ways they survive the tasks that their role models and mentors have set before them (intentionally or unintentionally).
The bronze bodies of yesteryear and the negligent childhoods of Generation X are used by Stephan Elliott to set his scene, taking a satirical walk down memory lane with SWINGING SAFARI. In a small cul de sac in beachside suburbia, three inseparable families have their friendships stretched after a ‘swinging’ experiment goes wrong. Meanwhile, a beached blue whale becomes the focus for budding Super8 filmmaker Jeff and his best friend Melly (Darcey Wilson). Jeff is an avatar for Elliott himself; a lone slice of sincerity in this loud living op-shop of exaggerated personal history. The kids are there for the audience to relive the blissful negligence of the environment of their upbringings in the 70s (and 80s and early 90s) except for Jeff and Melly (and Jeff's sister Bec played by Chelsea Glaw). It's the parents' varying degrees of modelling all the quintessential consumer middle-class which provides all the markers of how not to live.
Baker charges into the director’s chair with dramatic intensity and confidence, adapting Tim Winton’s 70s coming of age novel BREATH. Set in an isolated coastal town in Australia, two grommets Pikelet and Loonie (Ben Spence) are drawn to the waves. As they embrace the chase and challenge, a mysterious, battle-hardened, big wave master Sando (Baker) takes them under his wing and pushes them beyond their limits. The script (adapted by Gerard Lee and Baker from Winton’s novel) muses on surfing as a spiritual pursuit. Coulter’s performance as Pikelet is in the school of Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW. Sando is Dennis Hopper's photojournalist trying to preach to the lure of the sublime surf. Coulter must try on the personas of those around him; flexing who he is from who he wants to become (which is beautifully contrasted with Spence's bravado and unpredictability as Loonie). It's only as Pikelet collides with Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) that you get the sense that he's heading toward swell too big to handle, so-to-speak with his teacher.
Raftopoulos’ WEST OF SUNSHINE is an agonising endurance test for your empathy. Alex is the hindrance and the gateway to Jim (Damian Hill), a gambling degenerate who, after destroying his marriage and career, is scraping by as a courier driver, changing course. We’re introduced to Jim when he owes fifteen thousand dollars to a bookie that’s losing patience, has bet his last money on a long shot horse race and must juggle his commitment to caring for his estranged son. Raftopoulos sways between pity for Jim and his emblem for genetically shoddy fatherhood (his classic car) and this ‘Hail Mary’ shot for redemption; and his deeply disturbing, egregious and unforgivable negligence. Alex's life is the stake that Jim's playing with.
There seems to be something irreconcilable in our psyche, an awareness that our foundational national identity is compromised. In Australia, coming of age means foundational traumatic experiences and a lingering niggle in one's conscience. Who we are is underscored by the scars that healed in our youth.
SWINGING SAFARI, BREATH and WEST OF SUNSHINE were screened in cinema in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during September 2018 as part of AACTA Film Fest. The films will be available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 11 October 2018.
For your complete guide to the feature films competing for a nomination for the 2018 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Film Fest Guide here (6MB).