The Neon Spectrum, the previous film from Melbourne filmmaker Lee Galea, was a Wizard of Oz-influenced romance that saw a young English woman flying to Melbourne in pursuit of her absent father. Once there, she makes friends with, amongst others, a homeless musician who helps her on her search. It was a rather sweet and uplifting film that painted Melbourne in optimistic colours. Filterphonic, Galea’s third and most recent film, is a far more serious one, whilst acting as a spiritual sequel to Neon; more young adult than fairy tale, let’s say.
Jonah Garvie plays Riley, a young musician with seemingly everything going for him. He’s talented, charming and is taking his first fledgling steps on the path to a music career. When his mum is diagnosed with a terminal illness, however, Riley struggles to cope and begins to self-medicate in order to do so. Having spectacularly failed at an audition – in which Galea appears to be making a cheeky nod to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver – Riley retreats further into his own self-pity; taking it out on everyone and everything.
For most Australian dramas, this would be enough of a plot and the audience would follow Riley in his downward spiral to an expectedly depressing ending. In Filterphonic, Riley is offered salvation via a local theatre group, who are putting on a performance of Neon Spectrum: The Musical. Did I also mention that Filterphonic, itself, is a musical? Meta ahoy! Getting the go ahead from the play’s director, Riley is put in charge of writing two new songs for the show’s interpretation of Alex. One of which, coincidentally, requires Riley to come to terms with his mother’s mortality.
The earlier comparison to a young adult novel isn’t meant to be flippant; Riley’s journey does bear all the hallmarks of a coming-of-age tale. Through the theatre group and their musical, Galea sets up a realistic path of retribution for Riley in which the young tearaway finds an new and safer avenue to filter out the pain of coping with his mother’s illness and focus on his passion for music. Equally, Riley finds parallels in Neon Spectrum’s narrative that go some way to mitigating previous bad habits. We even have a wizened old neighbour, Pam (Maureen McInerny), on board to teach Riley a thing or two about life and maybe, just maybe, learn some things herself.
Like Neon Spectrum – the film, not the fake musical – there’s an innocence to Filterphonic that suggests that its writer/director really wants to show the good in people no matter what their circumstances are. Even if you think you know where all this is all leading, the film is too disarming to let you really worry about it. Similar to Neil Triffett’s Emo: The Musical, the film’s musical numbers are toe-tapping and contrast nicely with Riley’s more mundane surroundings. Don’t expect any overly coordinated crowd scenes here; Filterphonic is all about the micro and the personable, and it largely works in its favour.
In all fairness, you have to admire a film that allows a director to not only explore issues of humanity but also delve thematically into his previous work. If it’s good enough for Tom Six and his Human Centipede trilogy, then it’s good enough for the more joyful explorations of cinema. Honestly, your mileage will likely vary on how well this all works for you, but Filterphonic wears its heart on its sleeve to the point that it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in its charm.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Filterphonic’ will have its premiere on July 26, 2019 as the opening film of the 2019 Lorne Film festival.