Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Rosemary Myers
Stars: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Maiah Stewardson, Eamon Farren, Imogen Archer, Fiona Dawson, Grace Dawson.
This idiosyncratic, quirky and offbeat coming of age tale has more in common with the droll style of Napoleon Dynamite and the films of Wes Anderson than the sweet natured romcoms of the late John Hughes. It also plays with the familiar tropes of the genre, and embraces the mystery and trauma of growing up.
Greta Driscoll (played by Bethany Whitmore, from tv series The Family Law, etc) is about to turn fifteen, but fears leaving her childhood behind. She also has to confront her fears about growing up. An outsider, she has just moved to a new school and is struggling to fit in. She forms a friendship with the nerdy and chatty Elliot (Harrison Feldman, from the tv series Upper Middle Bogan) who aspires to be more than just a friend. And she has to deal with the trifecta of intimidating and bullying mean girls led by Jade (Maiah Stewardson).
Greta is also often embarrassed by the behaviour of her quarrelling parents Janet (Amber McMahon) and the daggy Conrad (Whittet), who has a penchant for corny jokes and inappropriately tight shorts. Her parents decide to throw a lavish birthday party and invite all of her classmates. This adds to Greta’s heightened sense of anxiety and discomfort. And amidst all the dancing and music, Greta does fall asleep and has a rather disturbing dream in which she ventures into a forest filled with bizarre creatures, a surreal sequence that gives the material a darker fairy tale like feel. The film gradually grows darker in tone as it progresses, moving from more light hearted comedy to darker moments that blur the line between reality and fantasy.
In her dreams, Greta wanders through an alternate reality in which she encounters characters like the meek Abject Man (Whittet), the hostile Frozen Woman (McMahon) and the feisty Hulda (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, from 52 Weeks, etc). These strange characters personify her fears and subconscious worries about getting older. But these surreal sequences will remind some audiences of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are.
Girl Asleep was created as a stage play for Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre by actor turned writer Matthew Whittet (The Great Gatsby, etc) and director Rosemary Myers, and was the third part of a coming of age trilogy. The pair have brought the play to the screen, which allowed them to expand on their vision and broaden it out considerably. Whittet’s screenplay gives some insights into the troubled mind of an adolescent girl. The film is steeped in the aesthetic of the 70s with colourful clothing, vibrant colours, Jonathon Oxlade’s inventive production design and Andrew Commis’ cinematography. Commis gives the material a distinctive look and visual palette, and he has also shot scenes in the boxy 4:3 ratio. And there is a wonderful and energetic girl fight staged and choreographed to The Angels’ hit Take A Long Line.
Having worked with the stage play from its inception Myers has a deep understanding of the material and the idiosyncratic characters. A veteran of the world of theatre, she demonstrates a strong understanding of the visual language of the cinema with her film debut. She employs a vivid visual style, even cleverly using intertitles placed on objects like a basketball or food stuff to set the scene.
Myers draws solid performances from her cast, several of whom had appeared in the stage play. Whitmore is perfectly cast as the timid misfit Greta, and she uses facial tics and expressions to show her uneasiness and frustrations. Her performance anchors the film. Whittet is also good, and a little creepy as her father Conrad. Cast against type, Feldman also brings a wonderfully nerdy quality and nervousness to his debut film performance.
Girl Asleep has been wowing audiences at film festivals around the world, and it recently won the Age Critics Prize for Best Film at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It has found its niche on the festival and art house circuit and may well reach a broader audience.