Wagga Wagga is a cracking mid-size town in NSW best known for punching massively above its weight when it comes to producing top-tier sporting talent, from Michael Slater, Geoff Lawson, Paul Kelly and Wayne Carey through to Peter Sterling, Tony Roche and Steve Mortimer. And that’s just to name a few. Wagga Wagga now also has a genuine burgeoning auteur in the form of Mark Grentell, who follows up his charming 2013 debut, Backyard Ashes, with the equally charming The Merger. Both films were shot in the Riverina area by the Wagga Wagga-born Grentell, and enthusiastically push the region’s underrated bucolic allure, while also embracing its obvious love of sport.
Based on the one-man stage show by humourist and actor, Damian Callinan, The Merger tells a footy story at the grass roots level, as the Aussie Rules team from the tiny rural town of Bodgy Creek struggles to survive. While the team’s main man, Bull Barlow (John Howard in wonderfully blustering form), wants to stick with tradition, his daughter-in-law, Angie (gifted stage performer, Kate Mulvany, excels here), wants to change it up and make a move for the future. Her first step is to offer the job of coach to Troy Carrington (Damian Callinan boasts an easy, impossible-to-fake charm), a once great footy player now hated in Bodgy Creek because his environmentalist bent led to the closure of the town’s sustaining timber mill. Employing the town’s international refugee community to build a new clubhouse to take advantage of a government grant, Troy also ropes in this disparate group from around the world to swell the ranks of his dwindling team.
The Merger has a massive heart, and it’s unequivocally in the right place. It also more than makes up for some minor pacing issues and a couple of twee moments. Happily walking the same Aussie-as-Aussie-can-be territory as The Castle, The Merger is busting with great gags and loveable characters, and its messages about tolerance and the value of mateship are timely and well placed. The core relationships are also cannily played and written, with the romance between Troy and Angie a highlight, and an eye-catching support cast, with the likes of Fayssal Bazzi, Josh McConville, Nick Cody, Ben Knight, and Penny Cook all on top form. There’s even a scene-stealing kid, with Rafferty Grierson an absolute delight as Angie’s precocious son, Neil. A warm and engaging sports comedy, The Merger is a winner.
Test cricket is not always fast, quick or simple. Neither is returning to your home in Hobart. And neither is deciding what to do with the rest of your life. This is the possible line of thinking that may have engendered Ted Wilson’s impressive feature directing debut Under the Cover of Cloud.
Droll Ted Wilson has just lost his job writing a column for a travel magazine in Melbourne. A loyal Tasmanian and mad cricketing enthusiast, he cruises back to Hobart to visit his family, take in some bands, and try to decide what to do next; top of the list is to meet his hero David Boon, and to write a book about cricket that is more ‘literary’ than statistical.
This, in a nutshell, is the story. The film does not have a traditional plot. It is through minutes of talking endlessly about trees with his mother, low-key smiles and family meals, that his eternal light ‘Boonie’ presents himself almost by coincidence, without explanation. This allows Ted the intervention he was seeking. Although Ted revels in meeting his cricketing idol, the meeting doesn’t transform him. He goes back to Melbourne.
What is impressive about this first effort from Wilson is that so much is wrangled in so little, and it is in large swathes, a film about family, with the director’s actual family mostly making up the cast. Plot doesn’t matter.
The film was shot in 2016 with no backing or funding, with Wilson financing the entire film himself, using his own relatives, whittling down the running time from an original 15 hours. The territory is autobiographical, Cassavetes-like.
Working against the grain of rapidly-edited films and plot-driven stories, this is more about interactions, smiles, gentle exchanges. There are no plot twists. No plot.
One of the largest scenes is a conversation between Wilson and his mother, on how to deal with a problematic tree, among other subjects.
Wilson, who has cited Jarmusch and Ozu as references, and toyed with making the film similar in rhythm to a Test Cricket match, stated that the goal was to make an Australian film about people rather than landscapes. Here, he has made a meditation that is slow but steady; it’s about ambling along, surprising encounters, and family lunches.
Languidly paced, self-aware, and charming, like an engrossing Test Match even; Under the Cover of Cloud is a measured delight.