Films starring characters who have a disability can sometimes be maudlin or looking to play for the sympathy vote, despite themselves. Standing Up for Sunny at least refuses that tendency and manages to stay, somewhat relentlessly, upbeat. It is directed by ubiquitous TV actor Steve Vidler, and it is very much a local Sydney film in feel and location. Vidler hasn’t directed a feature since the rather effective Black Rock (1997). One wonders what has kept him from stepping behind the camera in between. This one he wrote as well as directed, so it is clearly something of a passion project.
The film centres on Travis (RJ Mitte, best known perhaps for Breaking Bad). Travis (like Mitte in real life) has cerebral palsy. He is supposed to have an anger problem but really – apart from the odd outburst – he seems remarkably even tempered. He can’t earn much money though, so when a pushy but charming blind Samoan called Gordo (a scene stealing turn from NZ actor Italia Hunt) offers to share the rent, Travis has to accept.
Travis is attracted to Sunny (Philippa Northeast). She is trying to break into the local stand-up comedy scene as a route to becoming a radio host/personality. Sunny has a poisonous boyfriend called Mikey (a thankless role for Sam Reid). She is also bulimic, partly because she had a traumatic childhood, and so she can empathise with Travis’s sense of being broken or rejected by society. When Travis becomes her sort of comedy coach, the arrogant Mikey resents their friendship and does his best to get Travis out of the picture.
The film is certainly amiable, and the low budget gives it a sense of immediacy and authenticity. The Inner West Sydney locations are clearly close to the director’s heart and he uses them effectively. There are some obvious problems though. When films feature people doing stand-up, the actual routines (and the audience’s wetting themselves) rarely convince. The other problem is the one that haunts many a rom-com. The arc of the narrative is so plainly in view from the very beginning that no amount of obligatory obstacles-to-love can persuade us from mentally jumping to the end.
Premiering at MIFF in August, this new Australian family film stars Daisy Axon as a quirky kid with a wild imagination, and a complicated family life that is played out by the likes of Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth and Joel Jackson. The supporting cast includes Deborah Mailman and adopted Aussie, Miriam Margolyes. Director is first timer John Sheedy, script by Lisa Hoppe, adapting the book My Life As An Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg.
Australia is busting at the seams with talented young filmmakers creating content for TV and the web, all off their own steam, and with seemingly little financial reward. Though high quality material is abundant, much of this work fails to break through into the mainstream, which is, to put it mildly, a damn shame. Hopefully, the utterly delightful comedy, Hot Mess, will buck the trend and capture hearts on the large scale that it truly deserves.
Written and directed by Lucy Coleman (whose web series, On The Fringe, is online now), this thoroughly contemporary tale of love, desperation, and misplaced priorities has the smarts and savvy to make its non-existent budget an instant non-problem, and even a strange kind of strength.
At the centre of this finely judged piece of comedic economy is 25-year-old Loz (Sarah Gaul is an absolute revelation here, expertly navigating a difficult but truly loveable character who bounces all over the emotional map), a burgeoning writer who seems intent on sabotaging her own success. Hotly touted to be awarded with a coveted writer-in-residence gig at a theatre run by the no-nonsense Greg (a nice turn from Sydney acting school godfather, Terry Serio), the talented Loz constantly jeopardises her chances by coming up with increasingly graphic and confronting feminist-minded material. Harangued by her concerned and disapproving mum (well played by Zoe Carides), the hopelessly adrift Loz sees an anchor in Dave (the gifted and charismatic Marshall Campbell), a nice guy who might just be the answer to her romantic dreams. Unless he’s not…
Cleanly but imaginatively shot by DOP, Jay Grant, and boasting a just-right musical score by Jack Hambling and Tom O’Dea, Hot Mess really sings when it comes to performance and script. Lucy Coleman’s dialogue is loopily of-the-moment, but it never feels cloying or contrived. Her characters speak like smart, thoughtful young people do in “real life”, and the creation of such pitch-perfect dialogue is no mean feat indeed. It’s helped to no end by the actors speaking it, all of whom ring and sing with wit and authenticity. Effortlessly current but undeniably timeless, Hot Mess is a warm and wonderful work from a very exciting new voice in Australian comedy.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the most highly visible (we’ve all seen someone on the street wearing one of their promotional hoodies, right?) and instantly effective environmental protective organisations in the world. Founded by Paul Watson – who was ousted from Greenpeace because his approach was too confrontational for the appropriately titled environmental activist group – Sea Shepherd has used various seagoing vessels to obstruct the Japanese whale trade via direct and often aggressive methods. Unsurprisingly, they are a highly divisive player on the environmental protection scene.
This crowd-funded, Australian-produced documentary from director, Stephen Amis (whose diverse resume includes everything from the Shane Jacobson-led comedy, The BBQ, to the schlock-action of The 25th Reich), however, is unapologetically in Sea Shepherd’s corner. With a ragged sense of urgency, the film takes viewers on-board Sea Shepherd’s various vessels as they set out into the icy waters of Antarctica to way-lay a phalanx of Japanese whaling ships on their way to harpoon as many Minke whales as they can.
With different types of ships with catchy names (including the Brigitte Bardot and the Steve Irwin) and flashy paint jobs, the small Sea Shepherd flotilla is almost like an environmental version of The Thunderbirds, heroically crewed by its own version of the Tracy brothers. Committed and charismatic, the likeable likes of Captains Peter Hammarstedt and Luis Manuel De Pinho put their lives on the line as they bump their vessels up against the much larger (and utterly horrific) Japanese factory ships, which are basically blood-stained aquatic abattoirs equipped with high powered water cannons.
The footage is high-intensity and gripping, while on-screen interviews with iconic figurehead Paul Watson provide context about Sea Shepherd. Sequences featuring Dan Aykroyd as the collective voice of the Minke whales, however, are far less effective and largely superfluous. It’s in Sea Shepherd’s sense of commitment, passion and daring that the exciting and compelling Defend, Conserve, Protect finds its best footing, playing out more like a seafaring adventure tale than an environmental doco.