Friday, June 24, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Days 10 & 11: A Haunting Animated Fable and a Quirky Coming-of-Age Fairy Tale

Family films often get short-shrift when we talk about quality movies, especially at film festivals. Rarely do they make the main competition lineups at Cannes, Berlin, or Venice, all of which favor "serious" material over anything that a child could understand. Even Sydney relegates its family films to separate section, designated for children so that parents know which films are safe for their children. There's nothing wrong with parents making informed choices regarding what their kids watch, but it's still a shame that such films don't get higher-profile spots in the lineup.

For example, a film such as The Red Turtle (grade: A-), an animated film by Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit and co-produced by Studio Ghibli, would have made a wonderful higher-profile feature at the festival (though, granted, the film was a late addition to the festival). The film is an almost dialogue-free story of a man who is shipwrecked on a deserted island whose attempts at rescue are thwarted by the titular sea turtle. The turtle is not what it seems, however.

More after the jump.

The film's narrative is simple, but it works like a fable - a sure sign of Ghibli's influence (even though the film was written by Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran, neither of which work for Ghibli). But fans of the studio's previous output should know that their influence ends there. The film's soft color palette and simple designs are evocative and beautiful, including a few stunning images seen from underwater. Dudok de Wit makes the most out of the film's palette, especially in regards to characterization - since the characters do not speak, their personalities come out in the colors around them. There are a few visually brilliant sequences, including a disaster sequence that's genuinely terrifying.

The film's greatest asset, however, is the incredible score by Laurent Perez Del Mar. The French composer is no stranger to animated films, but here he has the unique challenge of providing the emotional core for a film with virtually no other sounds. And the score is magnificent: soaring, heartbreaking, quirky, somber, hopeful, and frightening in equal measure. It's a true achievement that deserves it's own distinction.

Girl Asleep (grade: B) actually is relegated to the family film section, even though it works as more than just a kid flick. Based on a stage play by Matthew Whittet (who adapted his work here), the film is the coming-of-age tale of Greta (Bethany Whitmore), a 15-year-old girl growing up in the 1970s. At a new school, she meets Elliott (Harrison Feldman), a gawky boy who immediately develops a crush on him. Her parents, determined to get her out of her shell, decide to invite her entire class to her birthday, leading to a social disaster.

The setup, however, doesn't prepare you for the extended dream sequence that makes up a third of the film's surprisingly brief running time. At this point the film shifts into a decidedly dark space as Greta navigates creepy adults and nightmarish children, metaphors for puberty and growing up that are at times uncomfortably distressing. While the dream sequence is certainly ambitious, it's hampered a bit by director Rosemary Myers' overly-theatrical direction, which presents everything as a proscenium. In fact, her style is so visually similar to Wes Anderson's that the opening scene could be mistaken for flat-out plagiarism.

And yet, even as Myers' direction hampers the dream sequence, it works wonders for the rest of the film. The scenes before and at the party are very stylized but make sense for the world, allowing for solid comedy and tapping into the well of melancholy that Anderson so frequently visits. Whitmore is a genuinely talented actress, capable of holding the camera and conveying complex emotions through little more than a puzzled stare; the future looks bright for her. Feldman, too, has an outstanding gift for nervously verbose comedy; his career is promising as well. If only the film could have stayed with them.

Tomorrow: a bunch of short films, a Stooges documentary, a terrific Austen adaptation, and awards from both the festival and myself. It's the last day!

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