Dir: Christina Andreef. Australia. 1999. 100 mins.
Prod cos: Soft Fruit Pty Ltd. Domestic dis (Australia) Fox Searchlight. Int'l Sales: United Artists Films, tel (44) 171 333 8877. Exec prod: Jane Campion. Prod: Helen Bowden. Scr: Andreef. Dop: Laszlo Baranyai. Prod des: Sarah Stollman. Ed: Jane Moran. Music: Antony Partos. Main cast: Jeanie Drynan, Linal Haft, Genevieve Lemon, Russell Dykstra, Sacha Horler, Alicia Talbot.
Formerly an assistant to Jane Campion on her three first features, Andreef offers a similarly mordant, if perhaps more benevolent view of domestic relations in Soft Fruit. Charting the bumpy course of an enforced family reunion, the film is highly simpatico and sharply observed, but is likely to face a tough ride itself due to its offbeat sensibility and difficult theme.
Like much strongly character-driven drama, it also feels at times like a meandering tour through a wealth of detail and incident whose cumulative effect is less than the sum of its parts. Still, an astute marketing push from Fox could usher this to modest success in specialised outlets.
After years away from home, the Petrov children descend upon the grungy steel town of Port Kembla to nurse their mother (Drynan) through the last few weeks of terminal cancer. The three exuberant and bossy sisters, all of them what Americans euphemistically describe as big, beautiful women, fight for dominance - not to mention the best bedroom - watched by their brother, a likeably feckless ex-con.
Their impending bereavement is insufficient to paste over the cracks which have long existed between these pugnacious siblings, despite their obvious family resemblance, or to allay the resentment of their father (Haft), a first-generation immigrant from Eastern Europe, towards his ne'er-do-well son. Meanwhile their mother is very far from ready to languish on her deathbed.
Warm without becoming sentimental, the script is evenhanded in dividing sympathy and attention between the combustible sextet as a series of tragi-comic confrontations reveal how extremes of grief and other emotions can prod people to react in unexpected, outrageous and inappropriate ways. These spirited performances are the commanding feature of a film which lacks much of a pronounced visual stamp.