On the surface, TOP END WEDDING presents as a simple romantic comedy, built on the familiar premise of a wedding thrown awry by family dramas. Screenwriters Miranda Tapsell and Joshua Tyler hit all of the expected beats in the first act, and director Wayne Blair delivers them with the necessary care and energy. It’s fast and it’s funny, sincere and heartfelt and genuine, and you quickly settle in for a comfortably good time. What makes TOP END WEDDING so special though is how it takes the familiar and subverts that, because what Blair, Tapsell and Tyler have delivered is far from a simple rom-com. These familiar tropes, often associated with white protagonists in US or UK cities, instead take place against the backdrop of northern Australia and within the culture of Australia’s First Peoples, and as the film progresses, these tropes fall away to reveal a film of deep heart, sadness and hope, one that is as quietly revelatory as it is warmly inviting.
As Lauren (played so beautifully by Tapsell) begins the search for her mother Daffy (national treasure Ursula Yovich), a journey that takes her through the Northern Territory to her ancestral home in the Tiwi Islands, she embarks on a journey into the richness and sadness of her family, her community and her country. Tapsell and Tyler don’t take the easy route with the narrative, telling a lazy story of culture clash and cultural appreciation in the style of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, but instead use the framework of the wedding and the romantic comedy to depict a young woman’s right of passage, a return to home and to Country, to understanding and acceptance, and to place First Nations Australians at the beating heart of the film. The trauma of First Nations Australians is present in every frame of TOP END WEDDING, but Tapsell, Tyler and Blair accept that sadness and weave it within the tapestry of the colour, texture and sound of their culture, an act that feels vital and personal. This alone gives you the feeling that you’re watching something entirely new: a depiction of modern relationships and modern family dynamics in Australia through a criminally neglected cultural lens.
It’s the final act though that elevates TOP END WEDDING to greatness, where the romantic comedy falls away, and what is revealed is a story about rediscovering your place and your history. We see Lauren reconnect with her mother, be embraced by her Tiwi family and begin to comprehend where she comes from, the soil, salt and sea that courses through her veins and speaks to her deep in her heart. There’s something intensely private about the final minutes of this film, as if we’re being invited into an intimate family moment we should feel very privileged to witness. That’s the great subversion of TOP END WEDDING, to take that whitest of film genres (one that this film not only clearly understands but genuinely loves) and reclaim it as its own, a romantic comedy made by First Nations Australians for First Nations Australians, in their own country with their own languages and in their own way. We’re all invited to Lauren’s wedding, to laugh and cry with her, to cheer and dance with her, but we stand at the back as guests, just as we should. The seats at the front are rightly reserved for Lauren’s family and culture. This alone makes TOP END WEDDING something we see so rarely in the landscape of Australian cinema.
Daniel Lammin is a film writer for SWITCH, as well as a Melbourne-theatre director and producer.
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