The Fringe Dwellers (1986)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Kristina Nehm. Kylie Belling, Justine Saunders, Bob Maza

First viewing, via DVD

Bruce Beresford is undisputedly one of the great Australian filmmakers. Between 1972 and 1981, he helped usher in and worked at the coalface of the Australian film renaissance, helming a succession of classics and quasi-classics. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Don’s Party, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant, The Club, and Puberty Blues all bear his name as director, and together constitute a remarkable straddling of genres and high/low art divides, from the broad ocker fare of the McKenzie films (which repulsed the cultural elite but still managed to net a Gough Whitlam cameo) to the earnest heritage drama of The Getting of Wisdom. He adapted Australia’s most topical playwright (David Williamson) twice, helped popularize our greatest dame (Edna Everage), and tackled politics (Don’s Party), adolescence (Puberty Blues), sports culture and commerce (The Club), and Australian-British historical relations and colonial identity (Breaker Morant). Beresford’s subsequent career has alternated between overseas films, including the Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy, and a handful of Australian productions & co-productions including this week’s film The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe, Paradise Road, and Mao’s Last Dancer.

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Despite this pedigree, it feels like Beresford and his work remain underrated. Driving Miss Daisy won four Oscars including Best Picture, but Beresford himself wasn’t nominated as Best Director, leading host Billy Crystal to crack that the film “directed itself”. Oliver Stone would win Best Director that year for Born on the Fourth of July, which was not necessarily a case of awarding Best Directing but “Most Directing” (and I say that as a fan of both Stone and the film). Given the currency attached to auteurism, it’s not surprising Beresford is often overlooked in discussions of great Australian filmmakers. Where Fred Schepisi’s first film was an autobiographical film about growing up in a Catholic boys college, Beresford’s featured a guy singing a song about vomit. Moreover, his films don’t have the aggressive, flamboyant visual signature of a George Miller, nor a core set of cerebral preoccupations like a Peter Weir. Consequently, it feels like Beresford’s never been afforded the prestige director treatment, and his CV alternates between quality films on the one hand and commercial product, gigs for hire, and eccentric choices on the other (Double Jeopardy, Her Alibi, the Richard Gere-starring King David to name a few).

But Beresford’s the real deal. His published diaries, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this… True stories from a life in the screen trade, and a book of correspondence between him and producer Sue Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, are fascinating reads, attesting to his cinematic intuition and knack for spotting good material, but also a strong work ethic that sometimes lands him lesser material (they also paint a portrait of film development as a monumental nightmare, with dozens of potential projects competing in a Darwinian struggle against each other, producers, studios, audience affections, and a multitude of other forces). As the director notes of his own underdog status in the former book, “I didn’t make it into Halliwell’s cinema directory until I’d directed 15 films and had two Academy Award nominations. Yet he had Icelandic directors listed who had done one movie” (Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this…, p. 61). To borrow from the great(-ish) Rodney Dangerfield, Beresford “don’t get no respect”.

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In the coming months a number of Beresford films will be spotlighted on Down Under Flix. The Fringe Dwellers is a good starting point following last week’s look at Yolngu Boy: it tackles the same subject matter broadly speaking – Aboriginal youth and the challenges they face – but from a very different perspective and in a very different style. Beresford’s film, based on the 1961 novel by Nene Gare, takes place in Curgan, a small town with an Aboriginal population dwelling on its outskirts. Teenager Trilby (Kristina Nehm) attends the local school where she’s harassed by white classmates and dreams of a better life. She encourages her parents Joe and Mollie (Bob Maza and Justine Saunders) to move into a housing trust unit in the hopes of achieving what she perceives as normalcy. The family, including nurse in training Noonah (Kylie Belling) and gifted young artist Bartie (Denis Walker), move into their new abode; however, much to Trilby’s chagrin, her family finds it hard to jettison their customs.

The opening credits of The Fringe Dwellers appear over stereotypical images of small town life – a BP petrol station with religious paintings for sale outside, a war memorial in the town centre, pubs, immaculately tended suburban lawns– before shifting to the fringes of Curgan where the Indigenous population dwell. This sequence and the scenes that follow not only contrast the white and black lifestyles and surroundings, but subtly establish the geography of the film; the small scale and stifling confines of the town; the leisurely, nonchalant pace of both small town living and the film itself; and the institutionalized but insouciant, almost lackadaisical racism that segregates black and white townsfolk. It’s smart, simple, assured filmmaking, and stylistically it contrasts nicely to last week’s film: where Yolngu Boy had an exhibitionist aesthetic (which, as noted, was a great fit for the material), The Fringe Dwellers aesthetic is gentle, with straightforward photography and editing. This unobtrusive approach gives the film a classical, timeless feel: while some of the fashion or dialogue occasionally dates it –a conversation where Mel Gibson and Bryan Brown are cited as sex symbols; advertising for Something Wicked This Way Comes in a video store; the very existence of a video store – the film plays terrifically well thirty years after its release, and should play just as well in another thirty.

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In earlier reviews of Human Touch and The Last Days of Chez Nous I noted a tendency among Australian films to avoid undue sensationalism, using Caddie as an example: where a mainstream American film about that subject matter – a woman leaves her cruel husband to raise two children alone and works as a bartender to ward off abject poverty – would likely be milked for melodrama, Donald Crombie’s film is pragmatic, matter of fact, and avoids easy or contrived dramatic moments. The Fringe Dwellers is similarly unfussed: there are a handful of moments, such as Joe abandoning Noonah after losing their rent money, that could have been milked for histrionics, but Beresford and co avoid such temptations. Elsewhere in the film, Trilby decides upon and carries out an action that in most other films would fuel a seismic emotional fallout; but here, neither the characters nor the filmmakers castigate or condemn her. The leisurely pacing of the film aids this avoidance of excess drama: The Fringe Dwellers largely unfolds at a plateau, with no real escalation of stakes. Also, most scenes are short and incidental, giving the whole film and the events therein a “slice of life” quality.

Kristina Nehm is excellent as Trilby, capturing a young girl on the verge of womanhood itching for better things. The character is rich with conflict and contradiction – wise and resolute in some respects, but prone to immaturity in others; embarrassed by but also proud of her heritage and family; torn between her desire to assimilate and conform and resistance to charity and pity – and Nehm invests these competing impulses with empathy and humanity. Kylie Belling is an immensely likable screen presence as Trilby’s sympathetic, compassionate sister; Bob Maza and Justine Saunders do nice work as parents inadvertently thwarting their teenage daughter’s push for domesticity; and Ernie Dingo pops up in an early role as a rodeo guy who courts Trilby, and while their instantaneous romance feels somewhat engineered, it proves pivotal to the story.

For such an outwardly amiable, likable film, The Fringe Dwellers experienced a somewhat chilly critical reception on release. It was nominated for various Australian Film Institute Awards, yet most reviews I’ve read were cool towards the film. For example, David Stratton called it “a tentative film, sincere but dated and even patronizing” (The Avocado Plantation, p. 204), while Geoff Gardner called it “earnest, but … backward-looking and complacent rather than being a dynamic film” (Australian Film 1978-1994, p. 197). Moreover, a number of Aboriginal commentators criticized the film, labeling it detached from the realities of contemporary Indigenous life. As recent controversy over the SBS television series First Contact attests, depicting Indigenous issues and stories via white perspectives is a delicate business, and I can see why Beresford’s well-intended, gentle portrait of small town Indigenous life – at the expense of grappling with more difficult subject matter and more pertinent issues – frustrated some commentators.

However, in conversations I’ve had about the film, those who’ve seen it have generally spoken positively towards it. Also, in the early 1990s producer Sue Milliken would report to Beresford that “Ernie [Dingo] told me that Fringe Dwellers is the most watched videotape in all the Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland, etc. He said they all love it” (There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 81). So, the film has resonated and continues to resonate with many viewers. And thirty years later, with a greater body of films made about Indigenous subjects, many from Indigenous directors and/or writers, I think there’s merit in lifting some of the weight of responsibility off The Fringe Dwellers to be representative of all Indigenous experiences, and embracing Beresford’s liberal humanist, heart-on-sleeve treatment of the material and its subjects.

In summary: While there are pros and cons to its soft touch and evasion of harsher realities, The Fringe Dwellers is a highly watchable and endearing film from one of Australia’s best working filmmakers. Highly recommended.

Next week: A jarring turn from the sublime to the ridiculous with another, infamous Beresford flick, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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