Based on a true story, Fighting Back charts the involvement of an idealistic young teacher with a violent and troubled youth, Tom (Paul Smith).John Embling (Lewis Fitzgerald from ’Breaker’ Morant) virtually became a surrogate father for the teenager and subsequently wrote Tom, the book on which Fighting Back is based. Unable to work within the State education system, Embling eventually quit his job to establish an independent institution for teaching similarly violent and troubled kids.
Writers Michael Cove and Tom Jeffrey and director Michael Caulfield transferred the location of Tom’s story from Melbourne’s western suburbs to the rough surrounds of Botany, Sydney, circa 1982. They offer a non-judgmental, almost documentary depiction of barely-teenage kids involved in all manner of petty crime, vandalism, drugs and sex.
Fitzgerald is playing a real person, but it’s difficult to imagine his John Embling having much of a life beyond the time he spends with Tom. As conceived, Embling’s almost heroically intuitive and capable. There is strong support from Robyn Nevin as a fellow remedial teacher and Kris McQuade as Tom’s world-weary single mother. Caulfield coached child actors in Storm Boy, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and My Brilliant Career and the young actors here are frighteningly realistic.The idyllic ending goes on too long, but Fighting Back is otherwise engrossing. Despite the hopeless situations it presents, the film closes on a quietly hopeful, rather than dispiriting, note.