Looking for Alibrandi

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 05/14/00 16:53:44

"A little film with a big heart"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Several days ago I fronted up to the local cinema to catch the premiere of Gladiator. My rather optimistic belief that seats would be readily available saw me relegated to the 9.30 p.m. showing, so I cast about for something to fill in the time. My eye fell upon Looking for Alibrandi, a “little” Australian film which featured no stars and a budget which probably wouldn’t cover the drinks bill for its widely-hyped competitor’s wrap party.

Five hours later I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, impressive as Gladiator was, LFA was its equal in all departments bar mind-blowing spectacle, and stands to prove that a vibrant cast, involving characters and knowing script will negate any limitations imposed by budgetary restraints and the absence of marketing-induced anticipation. One film bludgeons the viewer with its sheer power, but the other creeps up behind you and whispers invitingly into your ear, and there are times when honeyed words are definitely mightier than the sword.

Set in suburban Sydney, LFA charts the trials and tribulations of a seventeen year-old Italian-Australian living through the trying days between adolescence and womanhood. Josie Alibrandi (Pia Miranda) has been raised by her mother (Greta Scacchi) and grandmother “Nonna” (Elena Cotta), her father having departed for greener pastures shortly after her conception. Her extended family has preserved their old-country traditions, but time spent in the company of her peers and a healthy dose of youthful rebelliousness have left her torn between her ingrained sense of familial duty and a burning desire for independence. Matters are complicated by her attendance at a swank private school, where your father’s occupation is the most important indicator of your social status; the attentions of no less than two potential suitors (each from opposite sides of the tracks); and the re-appearance of her father (Anthony LaPaglia) after a seventeen year absence.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a big-screen version of Dawson’s Creek, but nothing could be further from the truth. Australian filmmakers tend to eschew the gloss of their Hollywood counterparts, lending an earthy feel to their productions which drives the schmaltz-meter into the dead zone. The limited budgets and lack of studio involvement also pays dividends in the casting, since filmmakers are free to find the right person for the part instead of having the latest hot property foisted upon them by anxious studio execs (the scripted protagonist may be a Samoan midget, but that’s irrelevant when Bruce Willis is willing and able).

The major players are therefore perfectly cast, their relative lack of exposure lending a pleasing ring of truth to their portrayals. If this was a major Hollywood production we would probably have been treated to a star turn by Mena Suvari, and that would have been our loss because Pia Miranda plays Josie like she was born to the role. The character calls for a delicate balancing-act, since Josie projects both street-smarts and vulnerability in equal proportions, but Miranda’s open features and expressive vocal delivery ensure she’s never less than convincing. Her natural affability also enables those who have left their school years far behind to become invested in her quest for enlightenment, ensuring the film exhibits an appeal far beyond its ostensible target audience. It’s a note-perfect performance, and while this is her first foray into feature films, it probably won’t be her last (being an alumni of Neighbours, we can only hope she goes the way of Guy Pearce rather than Jason Donovan).

The story also encompasses the lives and loves of Josie's family and friends, so it is fortunate that the remaining protagonists benefit from the efforts of several top-notch actors. Scacchi is the epitome of every young mother who has forsaken the pleasures of a carefree existence for the benefit of their offspring, while Cotta is deeply affecting as a woman who has reached the tail-end of a life which never fulfilled its early promise. Matthew Newton and Kick Gurry turn in likeable performances as Josie’s love interests, and LaPaglia sings far above his range in a small but important role, never allowing inappropriate sentiment to tarnish his portrayal of a man who discovers that we never stop paying for our past.

Given that the film is little more than a slice-of-life the storyline holds few surprises, but this actually works in the film’s favour since it lends an air of concrete reality to the proceedings. The script is reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, in that it deals with real people making it through the best they know how. There’s no pyrotechnics, and precious few soap opera revelations – only the truth, and there are few who can fail to be touched by its meditations upon the way in which family ties can be simultaneously comforting, stifling and exasperating (the rule about not judging our friends too harshly rarely seems to extend to our kin); the moments when we realise that what we want and what we need are two very different things; and the exuberance of youth versus the angry resignation of old age (there is a scene where Nonna reminisces over her youthful photographs which is positively heartbreaking).

Lest I make LFA sound like a po-faced rumination upon human suffering, rest assured that this is, at its core, a reasonably light-hearted exercise. It’s not a brand of mirth which will have you rolling in the aisles, but rather a gentle humour which is rooted in the fortunes and foibles of everyday existence.

Melina Marchetta’s script has been adapted from her novel of the same name, and anyone who has been privy to the inner workings of Australia’s European community will be smiling in recognition at many of the scenes depicted herein. There is a decidedly unfunny subset of Australian comedy which relies upon exaggerating ethnic traits for effect (The Wog Boy is a prime example), but LFA’s approach is considerably more restrained. The script may poke fun at its targets, but it never mocks, and this ensures that the humour is rarely strained or contrived. Non-Australians can also rest easy in the knowledge that you don’t have to live Down Under to appreciate the film’s sense of humour, and you won’t need a translator by your side since the dialogue is largely free of Australian colloquialisms.

The film’s only failing is that a number of the supporting characters and sub-plots are somewhat underdeveloped (Josie’s budding romances are given particularly short shrift) - considering the film clocks in at only 100 minutes an increased running time would not have gone astray. However, it’s meant to be a relatively breezy affair, so if it doesn’t quite scale the same heights as the likes of Magnolia it’s difficult to complain too loudly.

This is director Kate Woods’ first feature film, having paid her dues on a number of gritty Australian television serials (Phoenix, Wildside). She plays it reasonably straight, though the script does permit her a couple of flights of fancy (these heavy-handed sequences are probably the only scenes in the film which I could have lived without). She also partners the action with a bunch of tunes by Aussie bands (Spiderbait, Killing Heidi) which are deserving of increased exposure.

I’m not sure if Woods is a Wes Anderson fan, but the film’s conclusion echoes Rushmore’s, in both the closing scene (catchy music and dancing) and the fact that it provides no easy answers or assurances of a better tomorrow. However, it’s an honest ending to a film which eschews the trappings of corny sentimentalism for the duration, and ensures you leave the cinema with a smile on your face, secure in the knowledge that we’re all in it together.

It may be a little film, but it speaks from the heart, and if the international distributors are kind its message will be sent to the world. If not, the rest of the planet will have to be content with The Breakfast Club II, leaving us with one more reason to call Australia home.

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