This week’s review pairs two youth-centred Australian films of very different vintages and aesthetics. 1987’s The Year My Voice Broke is a traditionally-shot, rural-set period film (though originally shown on television) directed by John Duigan (Sirens) and produced by Mad Max creator George Miller. The film earned several Australian Film Institute Awards including Best Picture and Director, and a restoration of the film is scheduled to screen as part of next month’s Sydney Film Festival. In contrast, 2015’s Stanley’s Mouth is a non-traditionally shot, micro-budgeted, urban-set contemporary drama from independent director Mike Retter. The film screened at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2015 and is freely available on YouTube in several different formats.
Director: John Duigan
Stars: Noah Taylor, Loene Carmen, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence
Second viewing, via DVD
The Year My Voice Broke is set in 1962 in regional New South Wales. Danny (Noah Taylor) and Freya (Loene Carmen) are childhood friends navigating the complexities of their teenage years. Danny starts to feel adolescent yearning for his long-time buddy, but a spanner in the works appears in the form of the older Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), one of those classic misunderstood, innately decent bad boys. The film chronicles Danny’s rite of passage and the tragic unfolding of this love triangle.
Duigan’s film shares DNA with earlier Australian coming of age precursors like The Devil’s Playground and Puberty Blues, and casts a shadow over later period-set depictions of small town youth malaise like The Crossing, The Delinquents, and more recently Jasper Jones. There’s also a touch of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in its portrait of a slowly dying town (situated off the highway and left to erode) with a cinema as its social hub. It’s a somewhat melancholic portrait of small town life and the people politics therein, but the natural environment surrounding the town is impressive and beautifully filmed by Geoff Burton, who also shot Sirens and The Time Guardian, among other impressive credentials.
Noah Taylor and Loene Carmen, who would co-star again in The Nostradamus Kid and most recently Red Dog, do exceptional work in their lead roles. A scrawny young Taylor sells Danny’s youthful awkwardness and the chemical adolescent intensity and earnestness of his infatuation with Freya, while Carmen nails a character both flattened by and resilient against the slings and arrows of small town toxicity. Ben Mendelsohn also does nice work as Trevor. This isn’t the first movie love triangle covered on Down Under Flix featuring Mendelsohn at the pointy end – see Metal Skin – and like his work in that later film, he’s alternately sympathetic and selfish and fearlessly so. The supporting cast is populated with reliable utility players, but I’ll give a special shout-out here to an understated Bruce Spence as Danny and Freya’s sole adult confidante.
The Year My Voice Broke is deservedly regarded as a classic: it’s a funny and thoughtful and pained portrait of growing pains framed through an empathetic adult lens. A sequel of sorts followed in Duigan’s 1991 film Flirting, with Noah Taylor reprising his role as Danny, but a proposed third installment is yet to eventuate.
Director: Mike Retter
Stars: Stanley Browning, Patch Oliver, Jane Marr, Tim Moulton, Elysia Morrison
First viewing, via YouTube
Stanley’s Mouth, released almost 30 years after The Year My Voice Broke, is another film about youthful awakening, albeit in an altogether different package. The film is an observational look into the life of its title character Stanley (played by namesake Stanley Browning), a young man of Christian faith starting to explore his sexual identity. Whilst Stanley’s sexual identity appears outwardly at odds with his faith and upbringing, director Retter bypasses clash of culture tropes, instead presenting these cultures simply as parallel aspects of Stanley’s life.
The Port Film Co-Op logo (see below) which opens Stanley’s Mouth, featuring the recognisable visage of Nicholas Hope from his title role in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, immediately signals the film’s Port Adelaide roots and setting as well as its place in a genealogy of experimental local cinema. This logo also establishes another important aspect of the film: it’s sideways. The film was shot in 9:16 portrait mode, which is to say the camera was positioned sideways and the images on a conventional screen will play sideways. The idea is to turn your screen sideways when viewing so the film plays upright, in a vertical portrait rather than horizontal landscape mode: this works best and most easily on a mobile phone, though you could also tilt your laptop or monitor if inclined. For those not inclined to do this, there’s an alternative, upright ‘pillarboxed’ version of the film also available on YouTube.
The effect is, obviously, a taller, narrower frame. Consequently, some images feel cropped and fragmented, but this adds an immediacy and rawness to certain scenes, making them feel voyeuristically captured. Additionally, as befitting a film with a narrower frame, there are lots of close-ups and shots dwelling on fabrics, objects, and textures, giving many scenes and moments a tactile quality. And yet in other instances, the style obscures moments and distances the viewer, and other devices used by the filmmakers – including deliberate disjunctions between visuals and non-diegetic sounds, e.g. audio of cutlery being used or a VHS tape rewinding – can compound this.
Such aesthetic inclinations are, ultimately, consistent with the film’s approach to drama. There are few big moments in Stanley’s Mouth: it’s a film of small and observed moments focused frequently on the mundane rather than scaffolding a conventional dramatic narrative arc. This makes this micro-budgeted, quickly-shot film very different not only from the more traditional bildungsroman The Year My Voice Broke, but also the last film discussed on Down Under Flix which focused on gay themes, the mainstream Strange Bedfellows. It also distinguishes the film from other local LGBT films like Holding the Man, released the same year, a noble, earnest effort featuring Ryan Corr and Craig Stott as 30-year-old-looking schoolboys and a starry supporting cast.
While Stanley’s Mouth might sound like challenging viewing, it’s not: it simply flips, both metaphorically and literally, our received wisdom about the cinematic frame and the sort of onscreen conflict one would anticipate given its subject matter. It’s fascinating viewing if not conventionally compelling drama, and attests to the novel work being done by independents outside the traditional Australian film industry.
Next time: A triathlon of sports movies featuring Dawn! (1979), The Club (1980), and The Coolangatta Gold (1984)