Essie Davis

Babyteeth

02/09/20

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is sixteen years old and going through a rough time. Already alienated from her schoolmates, struggling to co-exist with her concert-pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis) and her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s also trying to keep things together as a terminal illness exerts an increasingly powerful grip upon her.

So when she falls head-over-heels for local tearaway, Moses (Toby Wallace), a free-living, drug-abusing twenty-something, her parents are far from delighted at his unexpected appearance in their suburban home – particularly when his urgent need for drug money prompts him to try and rob the place. But Moses is Milla’s first romantic crush and he’s almost certain to be her last… so Anna and Henry realise they are going to have to let her take the lead on this.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Babyteeth is its steadfast refusal to allow any of the usual ‘brave victim’ clichés to step into the mix. Indeed, for quite some time, Milla’s cancer is barely mentioned, so when it finally does step into the frame, it delivers something of a gut punch.

Scanlen, last seen as the least interesting character in Little Women, is a revelation here, quietly dominating the screen with her sparky presence. Wallace too does a fabulous job of making the initially deeply unlikable Moses into a fully formed character, redeemed both by Milla’s love for him and by her parents’ touching decision to allow him into the family fold. This could have been extremely mawkish, but is so adeptly handled that it really isn’t. Davis and Mendelsohn too submit nuanced performances that make them so much more than just supporting players. We share their anxieties, their frustrations and their unswerving devotion to the daughter they love.

Babyteeth marks the assured directorial debut of actor Shannon Murphy, and she’s aided and abetted by Rita Kalnejais’s inventive screenplay, the story punctuated by a series of quirky chapter headings, giving this the feel of a superior teen novel.

The only tragedy is one of timing. There are only a handful of people at the afternoon screening we attend and that’s a shame. In safer times, I have no doubt, this would be pulling in decent crowds and deservedly so. It’s an affecting story – and expertly told.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

True History of the Kelly Gang

28/02/20

True confession. When I was a much younger man, I was obsessed with the story of Ned Kelly. I read several accounts of his exploits, which gripped my imagination and, in 1970, saw Tony Richardson’s underrated biopic, which – once I got used to Mick Jagger’s alarming ‘Oirish’ accent – had me fully onboard. I even watched Heath Ledger’s fairly forgettable attempt to embody Australia’s best known folk hero in 2003. What is it about the infamous outlaw that continues to exert such a powerful hold?

In True History of the Kelly Gang (loosely based on Peter Carey’s Booker-winning novel, which I’ve also read), director Justin Kurzel doesn’t so much reinvent Kelly’s history as place a bomb under all that we know about the man and blow it to smithereens.

To give him his due, the resulting film, which is neatly divided into three chapters, is for the most part gripping. We open in the 1860s, where a young Ned (Orlando Schwert) is living in the outback in absolute squalor. He’s in thrall to his manipulative mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), who is turning tricks for the local constabulary in the shape of Sgt O’ Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in order to put food into the mouths of her children. Ned soon finds himself apprenticed to the outwardly charming bush ranger, Harry Power (an excellent Russell Crowe), and is schooled in the ways of the outlaw and the doctrines of toxic masculinity.

In the second section, the adult Ned (George Mckay) returns from a long spell in prison to find his mother still ruling the roost and living with a Californian horse thief, who has enlisted Ned’s brother into his trade. During a visit to the local brothel, Ned meets up with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and with Mary Hearn (an underused Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he promptly falls in love. This second section is already starting to feel rather strange. Ned appears to be dressed in suspiciously contemporary style: he sports a dodgy mullet and has a predilection for writhing around half naked, like an embryonic Iggy Pop. Kurzel seems to be invoking parallels with the British punk rock movement here and images of Kelly looking suitably aggressive in front of a Union Jack reinforce this notion. Still, so far, the conceit works brilliantly.

It’s in the third section where everything becomes spectacularly unhinged. Kelly’s sudden descent into apparent madness overwhelms the material. The Kelly gang run around in dresses – seemingly a reference to groups of Irish agrarian rebels, known as The Sons of Sieve. They blacken their faces, enlist followers and launch an ill conceived attempt to attack a train full of police officers. The famous suits of armour (always, I think, the most fascinating aspect of Kelly’s story) barely get a look in. Mayhem descends but, unfortunately, so does bewilderment.

In the end, it all feels too self-consciously weird – and apparent luminosity of the ranks of police officers, appearing in the climactic gun battle, is just too opaque for comfort. While I applaud Kurzel for having the guts to take on such a revered Australian institution in so fearless a manner, I have to conclude that this feels like a bold experiment that doesn’t quite work.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Babadook

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27/10/14

Fright movies come in different styles and formats but usually they have just one thing in common; they’re not really about anything much. People get shredded by murderers or pursued by ghosts, usually for no reason at all. This Australian creep-fest from writer director Jennifer Kent breaks the mould. It’s essentially an allegory about loss, grief and depression but in its own way, it’s even scarier than its American cousins.

Single Mum, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to bring up her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after the death of her husband Robbie some years ago. The fact that Robbie was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel when he died hasn’t helped matters one little bit and added to that is the fact that Samuel is a bit of handful to say the least, addicted to performing magical tricks and frightened about the monsters that supposedly live under his bed. One night, Amelia reads to Samuel from a storybook he has found on the shelf in his bedroom, a nightmarish pop-up book entitled The Babadook, which they have never seen before. It isn’t long before mysterious things are going bump in the night…

Like all the best fright movies, the Babadook gets a lot of mileage out of very little. The creature of the title is barely more than glimpsed and there’s always the suspicion that it might just be a figment of Amelia’s imagination. The film is also boosted by two superb central performances. Essie Davis is totally convincing as a woman pushed to the very edge of madness and her gradual disintegration through the film is a wonder to behold. Meanwhile, young Noah Wiseman is terrific in the difficult role of a hyperactive (and initially not very likeable) kid.

It’s interesting to note that the film started as a short and that Kent crowd funded it on Kickstarter in order to get the budget to produce a full-length version. It’s a powerful and at times, genuinely nerve shredding debut and it will be interesting to see what this director does next. Meantime, those of a nervous disposition may want to stay away from this one. Because you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney