Set on the moody Geelong coastline, the psychological drama centres around a complicated female relationship that forms in the fringes of the professional football world. Following the sudden and traumatic loss of her pregnancy, Claire (Laura Gordon) becomes entangled in the life of wayward sixteen year-old Angie (Olivia DeJonge). When Claire discovers Angie is pregnant, her intrigue with Angie grows into obsession. The film follows the two women as they navigate their way through their respective experiences of trauma and isolation. On the surface, UNDERTOW deals with grief, power, sex politics and toxic footy culture, but at its core, it’s an exploration of the female experience, and the complexities of women’s bodies.
The film’s opening sequence — cutting between intimate domestic scenes of heavily pregnant Claire, and shots of young Angie on a night out — shows both women in moments of physical prime. Claire is calm, content, alone but for the baby that grows inside her; Angie is young and vibrant, the image of youthful beauty. The two women represent two feminine ideals, two peaks of the female experience, both full of life and possibility. From here, the women spiral through journeys of loss that begin in their bodies in acute and devastating ways.
In the macho microcosm of the football world that she finds herself in, Angie’s youth and beauty is her capital. Equally, it is the very thing that makes her vulnerable. For Angie and Claire alike, it is a world they are involved in but ultimately excluded from. Their relationships with professional footballers position them in proximity to a world to which they remain outsiders. The two women find each other on this outer edge. In Angie, Claire sees an opportunity for rebirth, a chance to reconcile her own loss.
For Angie and Claire, the boundaries of control begin and end in their bodies. Through their bodies, they experience the full strength of their power, and must face their crushing limitations. Through their bodies, they lose their control, and through their bodies, they reclaim it. As Claire loses grip on reality, her attempts to care for Angie intensify and ultimately drive her away. Now dealing with compounded grief, Claire’s sense of powerlessness manifests in a growing disregard for boundaries and for herself. Using substances and sex, Claire pushes her body to test physical and social limits. Throughout the narrative, bodies are handled with both maternal care and reckless abandon. All the while, we are reminded of their fragility.
There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain; in UNDERTOW, this threshold is most acute in water. For Claire, water represents solitude, a place for introspection and calm. Equally, water is home to moments of horror and trauma. Rather than positioning this as a central conflict, the film is uncomplicated in showing that these things coexist: pleasure and pain, stillness and chaos, life and death. Claire’s journey through grief reveals women’s bodies to be similarly all-encompassing — as sites of agony and ecstasy, loss and healing, empowerment and complete powerlessness. This duality sits at the heart of UNDERTOW, and ultimately tells a story of reconciliation. Bodies break, and bodies heal.
Georgia Imfeld is a Melbourne-based writer, producer and early-career researcher in screen and sound cultures.
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.