Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn
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… a satisfying mix of elements which are both funny and poignant.
Coming of age dramas are a staple for a good reason. Each generation strives to make its own way in the world with (or despite) the help of older people, and all parents worry about getting the right balance between support and freedom. These universal themes are neatly condensed in this quirky and spiky tale by director Shannon Murphy, who has been mostly directing for the small screen and has a strong theatre pedigree. Here, she has made a calling card film debut, and Australian audiences in particular will relish its searing look at school age angst and Aussie suburbia.
Leading the strong ensemble cast is Eliza Scanlen (Little Women, Sharp Objects) as Milla, a typically rebellious late teenager held in the eccentric grasp of her libertarian but anxious middle-class parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). Anna alternates between popping a range of prescription pills and guiltily over mothering Milla. Henry is the counterpoint cool dad, but he is borderline dysfunctional at his job as a psychiatrist, and he has developed an unhealthy interest in their young pregnant neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay bringing her own wild persona to this particular version of suburban mayhem).
The inciting incident is that Milla falls for Moses (Toby Wallace), a charismatic druggy who is just that bit too much older than her. He is the last person her parents would have wanted Milla to attach herself to, and that guarantees that they will drive her further into his pockmarked arms.
Scanlen is very good in the lead with her wide-eyed innocence and longing for forbidden fruit, but it is Wallace who steals the film. When he first blunders into their lives he is the perfect representation of a scabby but dangerously charismatic junkie kid. Of course, there have been things that made him like that but that doesn’t mean that it is any easier for Milla’s parents not to react viscerally to his very presence. His transformation from street poster degradation to scrubbed up semi-nice guy is impressive.
The film was adapted from the play by Rita Kalnejias (and directed by Murphy when staged at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney). This is both its strength and its weakness. There are too many tropes and themes, and you feel that it would have been leaner if some had been left out. There are also too many contrivances where key conversations happen when everyone is in the same room, which would have worked better on the stage. However, these small faults don’t sink the film and those who go with it will find a satisfying mix of elements which are both funny and poignant.