Willfull is the directorial debut of socialite-turned-filmmaker Rebel Russell, whose previously highest profile work was as executive producer on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.Russell came up with the idea for Willfull, and the film apparently contains autobiographical elements. Catherine (Anna Lise Phillips) has escaped her domineering mother Katya (Anne Looby) by travelling overseas, joining an American “mind-powers” cult and falling in love with its guru, Nat (C. Thomas Howell). After Katya’s funeral in Australia, her ghost persists in haunting Catherine until she’s ready to forgive her father, challenge her stepfather (Charles “Bud” Tingwell), question her choice of career and boyfriend and - of course - learn to love her mother.
For an emotional comedy-drama, the characters in Willfull are too unlikeable to give a damn about. It’s difficult to relate to the problems of a spoilt, upper-class family - who’ll get the country estate, never mind the mansion on Sydney harbour? Harry Cripps’ script relies on such tired shtick as Catherine responding to her mother’s ghost, which only she can see and hear, in front of bewildered dinner guests. And the anti-climactic ending is sorely lacking in payoff. Catherine’s decision to take time out for herself leaves questions about her relationships with stepfather and boyfriend unanswered.
Looby plays Katya to the hilt, prancing about in scarlet cocktail frocks proclaiming “hello daaaaahling” at regular intervals. It’s a cloying characterisation, but at least it has life. After her prickly, under-your-skin performance in Envy, Phillips is disappointingly stuck on autopilot. The role seems to have robbed her of inspiration - Catherine’s daffiness is supposed to be endearing, but quickly becomes tiresome.I came out of Willfull feeling unsettled rather than exuberant. Russell’s direction tries to generate comedy out of empty busyness. Her efforts jar with the pain inherent in the film’s unresolved ending and theme of awkward reconciliation with the dead.