Set squarely in the middle of the decade that taste forgot (summer ’75 – ’76 based on repeated Jaws references), writer and director Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) quasi-memoir is a riot of garish clothes, fantastic plastic, rayon and Ray-Bans, all seen through the eyes of 14 year old budding filmmaker, Jeff (Atticus Robb). It’s frequently funny and anyone who spent any of their formative years in beachside ’70s suburbia is sure to have their sense memory triggered (the production design, by Fury Road Oscar winner Colin Gibson, is extraordinarily on point), but under the surface there’s not a lot going on.
Which is a shame, because out of the gate it comes across like a kind of amiable ocker Goodfellas, narrated by Richard Roxburgh as the now-adult Jeff, recalling how he spent his 14th summer running around with an 8mm camera, making weird little stunt/action movies with the neighbourhood kids, and also accidentally documenting the shenanigans of his parents (Guy Pearce, on form, and Kylie Minogue, wasted) and their neighbours, Jo and Rick Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon), and Gale and Bob Marsh (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims), as they try to spice up their suburban existence with a spot of wife-swapping.
Naturally it all goes awkwardly wrong and leads to some bad blood in the cul de sac (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all discovered happiness in polyamory, would it?), but young Jeff has more immediate concerns: the 200 ton blue whale that’s beached itself on the local shore for one thing; his growing attraction to fellow teen Melly (Darcey Wilson), who is alienated by the middle class bacchanalia around her, for another.
Sadly, Jeff’s actual journey gets lost in the mix, with director Elliott becoming too enamoured of the film’s period aesthetic to maintain narrative or thematic focus. The social and sexual mores of the period get roundly mocked, but never examined in great detail – watching Swinging Safari, you get the sense that there was a somewhat darker and more complex story here, but it’s been elided away in service to the extant film’s brisk and brazen 96 minute running time. Interestingly, the film once went under the more oblique title Flammable Children, a reference to burn scars that both Jeff and Mellie bear, but this story element is largely reduced to a joke about synthetic fabrics.
It’s a problem that extends to every area of the film – intimacy and complexity are repeatedly sacrificed in favour of sight gags, knowing winks, and broadside parody. It’s all surface sheen, and we’re never allowed into the inner lives of any of the characters to any meaningful degree. Events happen, but are not reflected upon or contextualised. Characters are interchangeable, be they a rabble of kids running around the neighbourhood, or even the adults upon whose peccadilloes so much of the plot depends. Indeed, the three blowhard patriarchs of the story are so similar that Pearce, McMahon, and Sims could have swapped chunks of dialogue wholesale and nobody in the audience would be the wiser.
Swinging Safari is a fun enough time, to be sure, but jokes about knitwear, bad haircuts and fondue parties only get you so far. Ultimately, the film fails in its implicit aim to satirise, instead falling back on mere parody. What could have been a real deep dive into a period of uncertainty and change turns out to be just a sight-seeing tour, and that’s a wasted opportunity.