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Caterpillar Wish

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 06/08/06 13:47:55

"Family snapshots"
3 stars (Average)

The Caterpillar Wish is the first product of the Australian Film Commission’s IndiVision workshop, for developing low budget independent movies.

It’s set in a small, coastal town during the winter tourist off-season. Emily (Victoria Thaine) is on the cusp of adulthood. She lives with her single mother, Susan (Susie Porter), has a relationship with a local boy, Joel (Khan Chittenden), and a friend cum father figure in Stephen (Robert Mammone), who works at the local boatshed.

Stephen’s a widower with a tragic past, and Emily’s been trying to convince her mum to go out with him. But Susan works as a topless barmaid and knows Stephen’s older sister, Elizabeth (Wendy Hughes), would disapprove and try to obstruct their relationship. Elizabeth, also the mother of Joel, has frustrations of her own. She’s trapped in a marriage with the town policeman, Carl (Philip Quast), that’s long since curdled. Carl spends more time in other women’s beds than he does with his long-suffering wife.

The gift of a second hand Bible rekindles Emily’s quest to find the father she never knew. Susan has always claimed Emily was the outcome of a one-night stand with a passing tourist. The Bible contains an inscription from Emily’s grandparents, who moved away after she was born. Unbeknownst to her mum, Emily surreptitiously and obsessively photographs the men passing through town, trying to detect a family resemblance in their faces. Now she is determined to discover the truth.

Writer-director Sandra Sciberras is making her second feature, a follow-up to the ultra-low budget digital effort Deeper than Blue (aka Max’s Dreaming), which screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 2003. Her storytelling is more confident and accomplished this time around, partly because she’s less ambitious. Rather than tackle several genres at once, Sciberras wisely sticks to one: the drama that follows the uncovering of a small town’s secrets.

Sciberras’ focus is character, not action, and her scripts attract top-flight actors. She writes particularly well for women, but the men here mostly fall into one of two categories: hunks or bastards. Mammone and Chittendon do good work, but are restrained by their roles as the rugged but sensitive types of romance fiction. As the movie’s chief bastard, Quast is all sneering and little surprise. Strangely out of place are the scenes with Emily’s grandparents, which seem stilted and amateurish in comparison to the rest of the movie.

Victoria Thaine (Son of the Mask, The Night We Called it a Day) plays Emily with a dazed smile and sunny demeanour. She’s tall and gangly, with the physical awkwardness of late adolescence, and is a good fit for Sciberras’ theme of the optimism and innocence of youth. Susie Porter excels at playing tough, independent women, and she’s not afraid to display Susan’s strong streak of emotional vulnerability.

Unfortunately, Porter’s terrifically coarse humour is kept in check. It’s symptomatic of what’s missing in the movie overall: energy and verve. There’s a lot to admire in the leisurely set-up: the work of the actors, Greig Fraser’s gentle editing, the soft-hued cinematography of Jason Ballantine (the production filmed in Robe on South Australia’s limestone coast). The movie drifts by pleasantly.

But when the family secret is initially revealed, I wasn’t jolted by the revelation (attentive viewers are likely to be one step ahead of the characters). Sciberras fails to tighten her gentle mystery story into a thriller with bite. An explosion of percussion on the soundtrack manufactures some suspense at the end, but the climax is contrived and haphazard in its execution.

In the movie’s most powerful scene, two characters grapple with the wrongness of what they are about to do, but go ahead and do it anyway. It’s a compelling moment because it conveys a sense of real people trapped by their situation, forced to make a difficult choice and struggling with the emotions that arise as a consequence.

The tone of the rest of the movie is muted: even the inevitable explosions of anger seem hushed and at a remove. Sciberras brings out the warmth and naturalness of the characters and setting, but not the earthiness or grit. The Caterpillar Wish risks being so inoffensive that it won’t register with its audience.

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