Co-funded by Screen Australia, the Adelaide Film Festival, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (among others) and adapted from the Windmill Theatre production of the same name, Girl Asleep is a hugely entertaining journey through a somewhat simplistic coming of age narrative, bolstered by fantastic set and costume design and an (often) strong magical realism tinged script from Matthew Whittet. The film, shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, maintains much of the cast and crew of the original production and comes together impressively, especially given that this is Rosemary Myers’ first time directing – and Whittet’s first time writing – for the big screen.
Set in the early ’70s, Girl Asleep opens on a shy 14-year old, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore), as she navigates lunchtime politics on her first day at a new school. This sequence, jam-packed with background gags, sees Greta meet the class dweeb – soon to be her only friend – Elliott (Harrison Feldman), as well as the cool kids, led by Jade (Maiah Stewardson), who at first embraces Greta before turning on her in that way that only cruel teenage girls can. We then meet her family, her hilariously kitsch father Conrad (Matthew Whittet), her overbearing mother Janet (Amber McMahon), and her older, edgy sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer). In an attempt to make her daughter come out of her shell, Janet forces Greta to have a 15th birthday party, inviting all of the kids in her year without consulting her. The party’s a hit, but after a negative encounter with the cool kids, a fallout with Elliott, and an electric shock from a music box, Greta falls into a deep sleep. From here we are propelled into a surreal magical realist narrative, as Greta is thrown out of her comfort zone and forced to grapple with the (metaphorical) pressures of growing up. While the plot is lacking in any major depth or nuance that adult audiences might be craving, it will do well with its adolescent target market.
Of note are the feature’s extremely high production values, with every scene coated in a layer of gloss and perfectly rendered for big screen presentation. In fact, the cinematographic elements of this film bear very little resemblence to its theatrical roots; there are very few shots held for lengthy periods of time, and it comes with a clear a sense of framing. Cinematographer Andrew Commis – who has previously worked on The Rocket and Beautiful Kate – even incorporates a few interesting optical illusions, most apparent in an impossible transition above and below some bed sheets.
The performances are a mixed bag, something to be expected of a cast comprised mostly of actors making their big-screen debut, but Whitmore’s Greta, as well Whittet and McMahon as her parents, are absolute stand-outs. Whittet and McMahon in particular manage to inject palpable humour into every one of their on-screen appearances, and are instrumental in the development of the film’s offbeat ’70s throwback humour.
The set and costume design – which come courtesy of production designer Johnathon Oxlade (resident designer at the Windmill Theatre), art director Erica Brien (Danger 5), and set dresser Amy Baker (The Babadook) – are also impressive. It’s a visually intriguing spectacle, with busy frames packed with numerous minor jokes and aesthetic flourishes that work to elevate the already solid backbone provided by Whittet’s decently paced script and regularly amusing dialogue. Additionally, the film contains a number of solid musical cutaways, with two dance sequences in particular that rival the mid-film music videos that have been popping up in a lot of contemporary French cinema – see: Rust and Bone, Mommy, and Girlhood – and films like Ex Machina. These elements work in tandem to create a unique Australian cinematic experience that is fun, quirky and weird in all the right ways.
Girl Asleep moves beyond a reasonable investment with guaranteed youth audience, standing on its own as a strong debut feature with high production values. It’s a nice break away from the stock standard tales of ‘Aussie life’ that generally receive Screen Australia funding, a risk that will hopefully pay off as it’s another step towards diversifying the current Australian cinematic climate.
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