A humble, slow-burning Australian drama, Broke explores the hollowed-out life of a former rugby league superstar and the generosity of his two most loyal fans.
“All they know is footy. We eat ‘em up and we spit ‘em out.”
Writer/director Heath Davis offers a cynical but convincing portrait of a desecrated athlete against a moody, lower-class suburban backdrop. Once the star player of the now defunct North Sydney Bears, Ben Kelly (Steve Le Marquand) has since become a disgrace to his fans. Homeless, desperate and wrestling with a gambling addiction, Ben is a disturbing example of wasted talent and is collectively loathed by the residents of the small New South Wales town in which the film is set.
Ben is saved from spending another night on the streets by Cec (Max Cullen), a kind-hearted man who stubbornly refuses to give up on an athlete that he and his family continue to idolise. Despite his current status and gruff exterior, Cec’s plucky young daughter, Terri (Claire van der Boom) is star-struck by Ben’s sudden appearance on her doorstep. The film even manages to draw its sparse moments of humour from Ben’s disgust of the fanatic “B.K.” memorabilia Terri has plastered throughout the house.
Even with their hospitality, Ben doesn’t hesitate to rob Cec and Terri of the few possessions they still have left, pawning their VCR and DVD player to scrape together just enough cash for a few mindless rounds with the slot machine at the local pub. Heath Davis expertly conveys the bleak, endless cycle that is Ben’s existence, the only driving force in his life being his need to score enough cash to place his next bet.
Ben ultimately proves that not all decency has been beaten out of him over the years when he returns to Cec and Terri, stolen goods and all. Terri and Cec aren’t under any false impressions that they can revive Ben’s glory days, but are more concerned with helping him restore some meaning and order to his life. Cec’s surprising generosity stems from a tragic event in his past, which comes off as a little cliché despite offering clear motivation for his character. Cec’s selflessness might have been equally believable if it was driven solely by his dedication to an athlete he has always worshipped.
Davis’ script refrains from lapsing into sentimentality, even where the film’s romance subplot is concerned. Being the film’s predominant female character, it was rather inevitable that Terri would fall for Ben. Their relationship shifts from one-sided awe and adoration to one of mutual respect. Ben is generally hopeless at conversing with people in general, but when it comes to Terri he behaves as if he has never engaged in any kind of contact with a woman before. The film mostly plays Ben’s haplessness for laughs (Ben picks weeds for Terri in lieu of flowers on their first date), but it’s a rather peculiar character trait, even for someone who is technically homeless. Nonetheless, their courtship is sweet and refrained, humanising Ben and feeding him more purpose.
Certain elements of the film don’t quite work. Justin Rosniak’s pawn shop owner Neck, for example, is a crass caricature of a low-class ‘bogan’, whose constant stream of swearing is jolting rather than amusing. The derogatory (and frequent) use of the term “fag” appears to exist in order to demonstrate how out of touch Ben is, but there are other references to homosexuality that are never explained (“Don’t do fag no more”) and thus become unnecessary.
Interestingly, the film seems to exist in an indistinct time period in the early 2000s. The North Sydney Bears are no longer part of the NRL and Facebook is mentioned, so it has to be at least 2004, yet there isn’t a single mobile phone seen throughout the film. It serves Broke well, given the past has such a strong influence on the present lives of the core characters.
Broke is a simple story, but one that resonates. Ben Kelly is a product of his own poor decisions, yes, but he is also a product of the intense pressure put upon famous athletes by the media and their fans. Broke rejects the idea that a footballer must be the epitome of a “role model” and instead presents viewers with an honest depiction of a “has-been” attempting to redefine himself outside of the spotlight.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10