Blend Napoleon Dynamite, Where the Wild Things Are and Moonrise Kingdom, and dial the quirk factor up to 11 and you’ll have something almost as strange as Girl Asleep.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Awkward fourteen-year-old Greta (Bethany Whitmore) has just moved to a new school, where she forms a bond with geeky boy Elliot (Harrison Feldman) and unintentionally breaks the olive branch extended to her by the popular girls. To her horror, she discovers that her parents (Matthew Whittet and Amber McMahon) have planned a fifteenth birthday party for her, and sent invitations out to everyone in her year group. At the party she’s humiliated to the point of lashing out at her loved ones, so she seeks refuge inside a dream world within her mind; a bizarre parallel universe where she can only hope to find herself.
Welcome to hipster heaven. Writer Matthew Whittet and director Rosemary Myers convert Whittet’s theatre production Girl Asleep into a big-screen adaptation, and the result is probably the weirdest thing you’re likely to see at a cinema in 2016. It’s a film that bleeds quirkiness from its every orifice, so much so that it almost forgets to be much more than a cinematic embodiment of peculiarity. Myers very blatantly channels the style and humour of Wes Anderson and Jared Hess, but ramps the eccentricity up to extreme levels; which does give it its own unique branding, but dilutes the levels of emotional investment that those auteurs often strike a balance with.
Filmed in the increasingly popular 4:3 aspect ratio for perfect square framing, every single shot is a showcase for a different technical trick, be it camouflaged people materialising out of the walls to reveal titles or the camera spinning on a food platter as each character grabs their dinner. It’s particularly impressive once Greta enters her dreambox and Myers allows her imagination to run wild with creativity, turning the woods next to the family’s house into a stupendous and spooky acid trip realm where anything seems possible.
Visually and aesthetically, it’s a triumph, especially remarkable for Australian cinema, but ultimately this feels more like a showreel than a fleshed-out film. The 70’s setting – realised with excellent sets and costumes – heightens the campiness to its absolute breaking point, with an overtly ironic tone that screams “hey look at us, we’re being self-aware!” It’s the kind of film that’s a wet dream for the alternative crowd, and drolly entertaining for the average movie-goer (should they happen to see something so indie), but has the potential to be enormously off-putting to anyone even slightly cynical or adverse to gimmicky filmmaking.
Casting is pretty much spot-on. Matthew Whittet gives himself some of the funniest lines as Greta’s father, dropping some shocking dad jokes, but also showing an overprotective side as he tries to keep his daughter from coming out of her shell. Harrison Feldman’s Elliot is a loveable loser, though his character pushes the overbearing envelope a little too much to sympathise with at times. Young Bethany Whitmore gives the star-making turn as Greta; having worked from a very young age in Australian media, she mirrors her nervous character and comes of age herself, confirming what is sure to be a bright future for the teen actress.
Girl Asleep has zilch in the way of depth, but at an incredibly brisk 77 minutes it is relatively quick and painless, so it’s hard to complain too much. In the end, it’s a little film that isn’t likely to float around in your mind for long, yet it remains a neat fable about growing up, with enough sensory delights to form a pleasing oddity.
Girl Asleep is available in Australian cinemas from September 1st
Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment/Kojo Group