After charming Australian audiences with the smash hit, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, director Stephan Elliott decided to shock them with his follow up film, Welcome To Woop Woop. The raunchy, ribald, politically incorrect result was one of the most maligned local films of the nineties…but was it way ahead of its time?
There aren’t a lot of films like this. Sure, Aussie cinema has its teenaged touchstones like Puberty Blues, but stories of this sort about Australian teenagers in their element are in rather short supply. And this production’s entire impetus is predicated on how most of the truly recommendable coming-of-age comedies tend to be films from the US; we don’t really have a set-standard equivalent to that here, something that writer/producer/star Hal Cumpston has set out to change with this feature. Only time will tell if he has helped create a feature that can stand the test of time alongside American efforts like Superbad, but he sure as given it a red-hot go here.
For the time being, it’s certainly confirmed that Hal can take his place alongside Luke Sullivan (Reflections in the Dust) as far as budding young Aussie talent goes because, for a script he wrote fresh out of high school, this is remarkably impressive stuff. While some of the monologues can be a little overwritten (the only thing resembling artifice here), everything else is astoundingly natural. From the vernacular to the choice characterisation that helps build on the mostly-under-20s cast on offer (including Hal’s brothers River and Joseph) to the frequently rib-tickling one-liners, even down to the showings of tension between the middle-class kids and the upper-class ‘Stox Boys’, this gives an authentic feeling that Hal learnt a lot more from the people and environment around him in school than he did from any of the adults.
Not that Hal doesn’t show talent in the more classic aspects of the medium; there’s quite a bit of theatricality to be found here as well. Bookended by performances of James Gaddas’ Shadow Boxing, a play that Hal’s real-life father and the film’s director Jeremy Cumpston performed back in 2000, the story and its trappings are reminiscent of Aussie theatre standards like Blackrock and Ruby Moon. Or basically any play that HSC drama students will have read during class.
It may not carry the same level of despair as Blackrock or anywhere near the absurdity of Ruby Moon, even if this is essentially a stoner flick, but the same need to craft tangible reality within the story remains. And whether it’s family tensions, calling out pretence while trying to avoid echoing it, sports-fuelled rivalries, or coming to terms with one’s own identity and desires, every note this film aims for not only hits the mark, but gives it an almost-transformative quality.
Watching this film, you’d be hard-pressed not to feel some kind of reminiscence of one’s own high school days, where the biggest worries were partying, making sure you were still upright after the partying for whatever the next day had in store, and making sure you didn’t get your goon bag confiscated. It’s very warm, inviting and tangibly grounded in reality, making for a new high mark for modern Aussie teen drama, and it shows Hal Cumpston as a lively new talent with a bright future ahead of him.
Utilising the Dogme 95 Manifesto as a springboard into the apocalypse, director Shaun Wilson has constructed a raw exploration into isolation and acceptance of the end we will all have to face. That sentence alone will have already turned you onto whether Black Garden is for you.
Set in the near future, around 8 days after World War 3, Australia is a cold and almost empty landscape. Its suburbs reverberate with the sound of sirens and groups of men and women being executed by masked people in boilersuits. As we’re brought up to speed, Wilson introduces us to several people around the world; each receiving a radio signal through a bog-standard household item. For one, it’s a gaudy Rudolph decoration. Another, a slipper. For Kate (Cara Culligan), our audience surrogate in this apocalyptic nightmare, it’s an unplugged radio.
The voice encourages Kate to leave her home, where she’s been counting down her last days. In doing so, she sets off on a journey to track down the man behind the broadcast, but maybe, also, some smattering of hope.
Based on the 9th circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, Kate’s journey is a troublesome one, which is bolstered by the haunting monochrome cinematography that keeps Black Garden from truly embracing its audience. This makes the film a tough watch as we witness Kate trying to use her last time on earth searching for something better. Kate is an observer, and her lonesome journey is briefly punctuated when she crosses paths with those who appear worse off than her. Except for perhaps Harry (Wilson himself), who is jovial and, along with his housemates that only he can see and hear, appears to have Kate’s best interests at heart.
Kate’s time with Harry is perhaps the more traditional part of Black Garden, narratively speaking. Wilson ensures we’re on the back foot with this smiling bearded man from the minute he invites her into his home. He creates something uncomfortable to watch as the two discuss the state of the world, and never reassuring us that something much worse isn’t about to happen in their microcosm.
After much ado about Harry, Black Garden begins to drift further away from the narrative norm, and it can be challenging to take it all in as Kate’s world becomes more suffocating. And perhaps, that’s the point. Kate and others unseen have reached the point of undeniability: things are not going to get much better. The film seems to always remind us that eventually, we all die alone. Not a cheery thought, but then, Wilson doesn’t appear to have set out to make a film that will garner repeats on tv during the Christmas season. The film is asking us to think about how far we’d push ourselves when all hope is lost.
As mentioned up top, you’ll likely have already made up your mind whether Black Garden is for you and that’s perhaps fair enough. This is more art exhibition than a film. And if that’s your sort of thing, it’ll give you a chance to dive in and wrangle meaning out of it once you come up for air.
Co-writer/producer of the enigmatic feature film Observance, Josh Zammit, steps up to direct his own work with this atmospheric mood piece starring Harry Greenwood (The Nightingale) and a gorgeous greyhound.