“Do you have the capacity to reveal your inner most truth? Because if you can’t find the courage to do that, then you’ve got no business being on-stage,” high-school Hal of BILCHED (Jeremy Cumpston) is warned by an adjudicator at his ‘NADA’ audition. The sentiment sets the tone early in a film that is explicitly courageous in its pursuit of the truth and in genre itself.
A modern Australian coming of age story is a rare treat in an industry that’s slightly fatigued by static nostalgia, often in the shape of lava lamps, burnt-orange trinkets, Tupperware, fondue forks and vintage eskys. The safe, less courageous, inclination is to remain self-referential, looking back at the ‘glory days’ rather than facing the future and all it invites. So, it’s refreshing to see green shoots bursting through in the form of three outstanding feature films in competition for the 2019 ACCTA awards, BILCHED, SUBURBAN WILDLIFE (Imogen McCluskey) and SEQUIN IN A BLUE ROOM (Samuel Van Grinsven). These films exhibit an intuitive truth, uninhibited by contrived clichés, and while the transition-to-adulthood stories might be age-old, the way they’re expressed in this collection of stories is the outcome of entrepreneurial film-makers prepared to trail blaze into new territories, holding open new spaces in the exploration of a modern truth.
These exciting films don’t employ traditional trickery by dangling an inevitable unrequited romance or baiting with an aggressive revenge on the antagonist. They subtly explore a thread of moments (of varying stakes) that matter within the respective worlds to such an extent that I was heavily engaged through-out. From the impending loss of a loyal friend to London, the supercharged swipe addiction of the online hook-up scene, first time sexual encounters, evolving boundaries, to the drug-taking, rule-breaking, risk-taking, body-shaking, all underpinned by complex explorations of friendship.
In heart-warming comedy BILCHED the script flows seamlessly, and highly relatable, hilarious banter is offset by performances to boot. We body surf and Stotts-slam with old friends Hal and Mat as they navigate their final year of high-school against a beachside backdrop with plenty of ‘bud’. All three films are laced with modern-day drug experimentation, not emphasised but accessorised, within relevant environments. Liberated partying and out-of-body experiences are also common to the films, as explored artistically through sound, pace and light, reflecting unshackled immersion that presents both freedom and fear.
SUBURBAN WILDLIFE a “narrative of queer longing and love” considers where freedom intersects with consequence, pressure, denial, accessibility and responsibility. The understated and beautifully layered performances and script come together deliciously, and the extreme discipline of subtlety reinforces a stringent commitment to truth. My investment was such that I felt everything just as strongly as those overly dramatic movie moments we’ve been taught to expect…slash crave. In many cases, within these films the climax was an actual climax, sensual or sexual in nature, and it didn’t make the structure any less poignant. Just as the accrual of a long-desired bird tattoo on the inner arm felt just as meaningful as any curtain-closing finale with all the bells and whistles.
References to digital technology ran through all films, none more than SEQUIN IN A BLUE ROOM, which nailed the integration of mobile app interface and screen. This stunning example of film-making is exquisitely compelling across every facet – direction, production, cinematography, visual effects, writing and performance. The thriller influence coaxed me onto the edge of my seat, but I was never distracted from the intimate connection with the ever-alluring Sequin. Director, Van Grinsven, says SEQUININ A BLUE ROOM, “is a story of our teenage fantasies colliding with adult realities,” and the self-described “digital coming of age” is a striking metaphor in this current climate when our Internet growing pains will inevitably trigger an awkward transformation.
The unabashed authenticity of these films engenders a genuine empathy that anchors the issues and ideas they explore. I didn’t feel patronised, preached to or told what to think, I was simply invited into a world to discover, connect and feel in a way that didn’t apologise for what I might see - totally natural, unguarded and unpredictable. This approach captured nuance gently, in delicate moments that challenge dominant ideas by expertly sewing subversion into the voice of genuine characters, not just inserted for popular affect or impact. It was exhilarating to see such a fresh portrayal of Australian life through the eyes of sophisticated, sympathetic film-makers who should be widely celebrated for their courage and truth.
To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.