THE MERGER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Mark Grentell

Stars: Damian Callinan, John Howard, Kate Mulvany, Rafferty Grierson, Fayssal Bazzi, Josh McConville, Angus McLaren, Penny Cook, Nick Cody, Sahil Saluja, Harry Tseng, Ben Knight, Stephen Hunter, Aaron Gocs.

Review: The Merger

Football is the lifeblood of many small rural towns across Australia and provides a sense of community and belonging. There have been a few films that have explored the world of Aussie Rules football – The Great McCarthy (1975); The Club (1980), which was based on David Williamson’s satirical play about the politics and infighting at a famous Aussie rules club; and there was also Australian Rules (2002), a coming of age story that used football as a backdrop to explore contemporary themes of prejudice, racism, aboriginal rights, domestic violence.

Now we get the comedy The Merger, an enjoyable, feel good and well-meaning film that explores the changing face of modern Australian society and deals with some big themes like racism, refugees, grief, small town politics, and it throws in a touch of romance as well. The Merger was created as a one-man stage show by writer and comedian Damian Callinan, who toured it to great success for the better part of six years. He has expanded the play, created several colourful characters, and opened it out to make it more cinematic in style.

Callinan himself takes on the main role as Troy Carrington, a former football legend who has become the “most hated man” in the rural community of Bodgy Creek due to his involvement in shutting down the town’s saw mill for environmental reasons. The mill was one of the main industries in the town, and now it is suffering. Not only is the town’s economy suffering, but their football team the Roosters has also fallen on hard times. It has been many years since they last experienced finals success. Their clubrooms have been condemned due to asbestos in the walls. And they are also in trouble financially, having to face the prospect of merging with another team or folding.

At the urging of the widowed Angie (Kate Mulvany, from tv series Secret City, etc), Troy reluctantly agrees to take up the role of coach. To the dismay of many locals, including the bigoted former club president Bull Barlow (John Howard, from tv series Sea Change, All Saints, etc), Troy decides to recruit many of the local refugee community to become part of the team. Amongst them is Sayyid (Fayssal Bazzi), a Syrian refugee who came to Australia to escape the horrors of the civil war tearing his homeland apart, and he embraces the game with passion. At first Troy’s ideas are met with scepticism, but when the disparate team members finally begin to mesh as a team and they find success on the field, he wins over a large part of the population.

The film is laced with some winning laconic Australian humour, and locals will recognise many of the cultural references. Callinan’s busy script packs in plenty of subplots, but there are several few patches where the pace flags. The film was shot on location in the town of Wagga Wagga by cinematographer Tony Luu (48 Shades, etc), and this adds to the authenticity of the material. This is the sophomore feature for director Mark Grentell and follows his charming and underrated 2013 comedy Backyard Ashes; he maintains a genial pace throughout, but the film lacks any sense of urgency. The film is also a little predictable and most of the audience should pick where the story is headed.

An ensemble cast bring the quirky characters to life. Callinan, who also appeared in Backyard Ashes, has a laconic easy-going charm and laid back presence that perfectly suits his character. Veteran Howard brings plenty of bluster to his performance as the curmudgeonly Bull, who is still grieving the tragic death of his son a year earlier and resentful of the presence of the refugees. Newcomer Rafferty Grierson has a perky presence as Neil, Bull’s inquisitive and mischievous 9-year old grandson who is documenting Troy’s efforts to re-establish the football club to its former glory and bring a divided community back together.

The Merger, which had its premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, is another underdog sporting story, but it is also a quintessentially Australian film full of typically laconic, wry humour and quirky characters. However, it may not be quite as endearing as the classic Aussie comedy The Castle. Callinan and Grentell effectively capture the vibe of small country towns and our love of sport. The upbeat soundtrack features such iconic local acts as Daddy Cool and Paul Kelly, which further enhances its appeal. Its heart is certainly in the right place with its positive messages about tolerance and acceptance.

★★★

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