Dir: Tony Ayres. Australia. 2002. 90 mins.

An exploration of premature death and how to grieve for a loved one who had lived outside of a conventional family, Walking On Water resembles Longtime Companion (1990) and similar independent American films to emerge from the Aids epidemic in the early Nineties; it comes as no surprise to learn that Roger Monk wrote his first draft of the script in 1991. The film has the immediacy and integrity of something born of personal experience, and its first-time director, Tony Ayres, manages to avoid treacly sentimentality with some welcome flashes of morbid humour.

But the mood shifts are often awkward, and the low-budget (Aus $1.5 million) too glaringly evident, while long stretches of the drama are perfunctorily written and staged. Financed partly through pre-sales and distribution guarantees, Walking On Water can presumably expect some kind of theatrical exposure, but the tricky subject matter and its faintly dated feel will make this a tough sell. Unveiled in Berlin, it has its domestic premiere in March at the Adelaide Festival, but its widest and most appreciative audience will probably be found on the cable and TV-movie-of-the-week circuits.

Both in their early thirties, Charlie (Vince Colosimo) and Anna (Maria Theodorakis) share a rambling house in Sydney owned by their best friend Gavin (David Bonney), who is suffering from a terminal illness, apparently Aids. Having nursed him for months through its degenerative stages, they have made a pact with Gavin to help him die with dignity, but a massive dose of morphine fails to do the job and Charlie ends up suffocating him, harrowingly and humiliatingly, with a plastic bag in the presence of his mother, younger brother, Simon (Nathaniel Dean), and sister-in-law.

This traumatic event signals the beginning of the end of the survivors' friendship. Seeking distraction from her pain, Anna domineeringly takes charge of organising the funeral and wake, leaving Gavin's mother on the sidelines, then throws herself into a reckless affair with Simon, whose marriage has gone stale. Meanwhile Charlie's relationship with both Anna and his boyfriend unravels, as he seeks consolation in the remnants of Gavin's morphine supply.

The film touches on a complex web of issues: a carer's sense of emptiness when his charge finally dies; people's myriad and often puzzling ways of dealing with loss; the vexed question of who has the "greater right" to mourn, close friends or blood relatives; and the awkwardness around the will and disposal of the deceased's possessions.

Scattered sequences leap out from the screen, such as an outrageously extended, comic-grotesque deathbed scene in which Gavin refuses to go gently into that good night. Yet these moments are few and far between, and for most of the time Walking On Water remains uncompelling, in part because it's visually undistinguished, in part because of the flatness of much of the dialogue. Among the cast, newcomer Theodorakis impresses most for her vibrant portrayal of a potentially unsympathetic character.

Prod co: Porchlight.
Domestic distributor: Globe Film Company.
Int'l Sales: Fortissimo Film Sales.
Exec prod: Bridget Ikin.
Prods: Liz Watts, Roger Monk.
Scr: Roger Monk.
DOP: Robert Humphreys.
Prod des: Rebecca Cohen.
Ed: Reva Childs.
Music: Antony Partos.
Main cast: Vince Colosimo, Maria Theodorakis, David Bonney, Nathaniel Dean, Nicholas Bishop.