Dir: Cathy Randall. Australia, 2008. 103mins
This charming, highly-accomplished first feature will gladden the hearts of parents everywhere looking for a film to watch with their pre-teens, especially girls. Directed by 35-year-old South-African-born newcomer Cathy Randall, who has been working in Australia for some years, this coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old nerdy Jewish girl with braces is funny and honest, if inevitably a little bit cliched around the edges.
Another plus is that it features Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young actress who played in 2002's New Zealand hit The Whale Rider, in a crucial supporting role. The Australian accents may keep the film from playing widely in shopping malls across America, which is a shame, but it should perform well, potentially in all markets: television, DVD, and even theatrically.
Esther (Catanzariti) is unhappily enrolled in an elite girls' school that seems bent on turning its charges into perfectionist automatons. More comfortable spending time at home with her geeky twin brother Jacob, at school she is ostracized and has to eat lunch alone. One day she meets Sunni (Castle-Hughes), who attends a more laid-back and innovative public school, and her life is transformed. She also begins to distance herself from her conformist if well-meaning family, preferring instead the company of Sunni and her hippy, motorcycle-riding mother Mary (Collette), who also works part-time as an 'exotic dancer' in a strip club and dreams of attaining her real-estate license.
Truth to tell, there's a lot of the formulaic in this ugly-duckling story but writer-director Randall has very cleverly injected new elements to freshen it up a bit. Thus, for example, Esther's family is Jewish, and Jewish culture and Jewish jokes figure largely in the film's humour. The dialogue and situations are also often just downright hilarious and occasionally outrageous. (Some US audiences may find 14-year-old Esther's ripe language hard going, however.)
Many little touches, like the elite school's all-girl chorus singing an operatic, a cappella version of 'The House of the Rising Sun' -- which is of course about a whorehouse -- or a slightly drunk Esther break-dancing at her Bat Mitzvah, will delight audiences. Needless to say, the satirical attack on the idiocies of contemporary 'respectable' middle-class life is appropriately relentless.
The young actors like Castle-Hughes and, especially Danielle Catanzariti, whose first film this is, are also responsible for much its appeal. Catanzariti is perhaps not as accomplished as Juno's Ellen Page, the film world's current favourite teenager, but she is also a lot less self-consciously cute. Toni Collette is, as always, completely professional, even in this comparatively small role.
The film loses a bit of narrative steam as it nears the finish line, and its ending is abrupt and quite unconvincing (although it keeps the running time down to a brisk 103 minutes). But these are minor faults in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable, fresh piece of highly competent commercial filmmaking.
Peter M. Graham II