MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEWS written by GREG KING
LAST UPDATED AUGUST 14, 2023
As with Of An Age, last year’s opening film at MIFF, Sunflower is a locally produced gay coming of age drama and love story that has a deep personal resonance for its director and is informed by his own experiences. After a couple of short films and lots of work with music videos and tv work, filmmaker Gabriel Carrubba has made his feature film debut with this film that has drawn upon his own experiences of growing up in Berwick, a suburb in Melbourne’s southeast, and wrestling with his own sexuality. This sensitive film follows 17-year-old Leo (Liam Mollica), a popular teenager wrestling with his own sexuality amid the usual concerns of parties, peer pressure and first crushes.
The film explores his complicated relationship with his best friend Boof (Luke J Morgan), who he feels increasingly attracted towards, and a newfound and rewarding friendship with the quiet, nerdy Tom (Daniel Halmarick, in his film debut) that gives him strength to accept his sexuality. Carrubba and cinematographer Martine Wolff (who hails from a background in short films) shot the film on locations around Berwick, which lends authenticity to the material. Their use of closeups also gives the audience a strong connection to the characters and their thoughts and internal tensions and also provides an intimacy in some scenes. The film has an honesty as it depicts the challenges of coming out in a conservative working-class environment.
For most of the young, largely unknown cast this is their first feature film, and there is an understandable tentativeness to some of their performances. Mollica (from the tv series Nowhere Boys, etc) gives a natural and sensitive performance here that captures Leo’s vulnerability and confusion. Veteran Sal Galofaro (from tv series Killing Time, etc) has a gruff presence as Frank, Leo’s blue-collar father, who shows an unexpected empathy towards Leo. And Elias Anton, who starred in Of An Age, has a brief cameo here in a markedly different role as a homophobic youth involved in a violent gay bashing incident.
The titular sunflowers provide a potent metaphor for Leo’s coming out story and his exploration of his blossoming sexuality. Admittedly, Sunflower taps into some familiar tropes of the gay coming of age story but Carrubba provides a fresh, personal take on the familiar journey.
LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL.
Every year when I get my hands on the MIFF program and start selecting my films the first strand I pour through is Night Shift which contains some bizarre horror films and cinematic oddities. And this offbeat film gives us a fresh take on the tired found footage genre as it purports to offer a rare glimpse at the hitherto unseen master tape of the final episode of a late-night talk show which went horribly wrong. The film also incorporates elements of occult horror, demonic possession and satire of late-night television talk shows, and it certainly fits into that part of the program that caters to the outlandish and the weird.
The premise is straightforward enough. In the 70s late night tv host Jack Delroy (played by David Dastmalchian, recently seen in Oppenheimer, etc) hosted the Night Owls program, a cheesy talk show which always trailed Johnny Carson in the ratings. But during a broadcast on Halloween night in 1977 something went badly wrong when Delroy attempted to win the ratings and courted controversy by embracing the theme of the occult and the supernatural. His special guests included Christou (Fayssal Bazzi, from the epic miniseries Shantaram, etc), a spiritualist; Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss, from tv series Wentworth, etc) a former conjurer turned debunker of fake psychics; and Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a teenaged girl who was rescued from a suicide cult and was supposedly possessed by the spirit of a demon until she was deprogrammed by parapsychologist Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon, from tv series Winners & Losers, etc) who wrote a best-selling book about the experience. But when Delroy suggests that June try and contact the demon that has possessed Lilly things go spectacularly wrong. There’s projectile vomiting, exploding heads, melting bodies, and some gory bits.
What we see on screen is supposed to be the recently discovered master tape of the show which includes the show in its entirety complete with a lot of unseen footage and vision from behind the scenes during commercial breaks. The film is introduced with an eight-minute black and white documentary-like feature with narrator Michael Ironside giving us some background information on the 70s as a time of unrest and also some insight into the personality of Delroy and many of the rumours circulating about his links to a shady cult known as The Grove.
This is the third feature film from Australian film making siblings Cameron and Colin Cairnes (2012’s 100 Bloody Acres, etc), and it was filmed at Docklands Studios in Melbourne. The Cairnes brothers use analogue effects to capture that 70s vibe, and the sometimes shonky effects are more the result of restraints of the low budget. Cinematographer Matthew Temple gives the material an appropriately retro look and he uses a boxy ratio for those parts of the broadcast that were televised, giving it the look of watching a tv screen. Late Night With The Devil serves up some uncomfortable laughs as it brilliantly recreates the look and feel of many of those late-night shows of the 70s and 80s, (for Australian audiences think The Don Lane Show) complete with its distinctive visual style, the colourful but cheap looking set designed by Otello Stolfo, the awkward announcer/comic sidekick, the breaks for commercials, the backing band and the appreciative live audience.
A perfectly cast Dastmalchian brings an unctuous quality to his performance as the ingratiating and smarmy host who grows more desperate as he loses control of his own show. In his feature film debut Rhys Auteri provides plenty of comic relief as Gus, the announcer who becomes increasingly nervous at the direction in which the show seems to be heading. Bliss is also perfect as the haughty and dislikeable Hunt.