It has been argued that “retro” films have become commonplace and that the new wave of 80’s-centric titles is contrived. The last few years have given us a slew of titles such as The Way Way Back, Everybody Wants Some and Ping Pong Summer – to name just a few – and they’ve all had something in common: coming-of-age stories set against nostalgic backdrops. And so rather than subscribing to the pretentious notion that retro movies are contrived, I choose to think that they reflect the generation of directors who make them. No one bulked at films of the 80s that threw back to the 1950s and 60s. Stand By Me wasn’t considered to be contrived, nor was Grease, Diner or American Graffiti. They were all the product of personal experience, and their sincerity was undeniable. The same should be said for our latest crop of “retro” goodies.
Girl Asleep is an Australian film set in a nondescript time in the 70s. It tells the story of Greta, an awkward teenage girl struggling to settle into her new school. She is befriended by Elliot, the school’s ‘loser,’ and together they attempt to navigate the rigours of adolescence. With the intimidation of the school’s clique and the humiliation of interfering parents, Greta disappears into a world of fantasy, where her life is reflected in a series of fanciful adventures and nightmarish allegories.
The first striking feature of the film is its aspect ratio. It is presented in 4:3, the dimension of common household televisions of the period. This initial technique gives the film an evocative visual throwback, although unfortunately it is maintained throughout the entire film. Not having the benefit of the modern day wide-screen format certainly detracts from the wonderful imagery put on the screen and it takes away from some of the film’s visceral power. Nevertheless, the imagery is striking enough to overcome the restriction and the story endures.
Based upon a stage production by Matthew Whittet, director Rosemary Myers has crafted a whimsical film that showcases excellent writing, a glorious production-design and an impressive ensemble of players. Bethany Whitmore is a real treat in the lead role of Greta, the heroine who transforms before the audience’s eyes. The young actress lights up the screen and is an absolute delight to watch. The rest of the cast includes the impeccable talent of Harrison Feldman as the quirky best friend, and well-measured support from writer Whittet and Amber McMahon as Greta’s daggy parents.
Girl Asleep joins a long tradition of Australian coming-of-age films and it sits comfortably amongst classics like The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting and Puberty Blues. Its aesthetic is best described as Napoleon Dynamite meets Mirrormask, and despite there being numerous films to compare it with, it remains an oddly unique and affecting story that holds its own. The strong soundtrack, when partnered with unexpected choreography and random bursts of surrealism, bolsters the film up and recalls the surprise affect of indie cult films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Velvet Goldmine. Of course the subject matter of those titles may be worlds apart, but their aesthetic and resourcefulness are very much aligned.
When a film is able to command my attention, fills me with happiness and has me wishing it would not end, it most certainly qualifies as a winner in my books.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10