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TORONTO – Stories of indigenous Australians have reached the screen in recent years in a spectrum that spans from the plaintive poetic realism of Samson & Delilah to the upbeat infectiousness of The Sapphires. Those films fostered an authentic connection to their characters that’s absent in the dramatically fraudulent Around the Block. A derivative collection of plot clichés lifted wholesale from 1990s black American cinema, writer-director Sarah Spillane’s debut feature is Boyz n the Hood meets Dangerous Minds with a fat dollop of Hamlet. Oh, and lesbian sex.
An underfed Christina Ricci plays Dino Chalmers, an idealistic American educator wielding her video camera around the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern. “A philosopher once said one is not born a woman but chooses to become one,” says Dino in an opening voiceover that sets off alarm bells. “I’ve always wondered if it’s the same with freedom.” Seriously? From the graffiti-covered walls to the Aboriginal teens that Dino films freestyling to boombox music, we’re deep into an urban-movie time warp.
For reasons unconcerned with logic, Dino gets an opportunity to teach drama at an underfunded high school soon to be closed. Most of its “kids at risk” – Aborigines, Maoris, Pacific Islanders – are not expected to transfer and graduate. Ignoring the cynicism of a long-time Redfern resident and teacher (Damian Walshe-Howling), who dismisses her as a patronizing cultural tourist, Dino busts through the weary pragmatism of the school principal (a wasted Jack Thompson, also an executive producer) and gets him on board with her ideas. She’s obviously seen enough movies to know that a production of Hamlet is just what’s needed to inspire these troubled youngsters.
Dino finds a rough diamond to play the depressed Prince of Denmark in 16-year-old Aborigine Liam Wood (Hunter Page-Lochard). He lives with his family on “the block,” a Redfern housing precinct run by the Aboriginal community, which, at the time the film takes place, is a setting for racial tensions and rioting.
Liam has acting in his blood thanks to his late Uncle Charlie, a member of the storied 1970s Sydney company, Black Theatre. Charlie was killed during a botched casino holdup that landed Liam’s white father, Jack (Matt Nable), in prison for 20 years. While Liam’s mother (Ursula Yovich) struggles to sustain the family, his hotheaded brother Steve (Mark Coles Smith) wants to sort out the criminal associate who tipped off cops about the casino job.
There’s considerable sensitivity and conviction in these performances, particularly Page-Lochard’s. But every single development in the Wood family’s plot trajectory is telegraphed, and these actors deserve to be in a less emotionally bogus drama.
Running parallel to Liam’s difficult journey are Dino’s white-girl problems. The shallowness of her Australian fiancé Simon (Daniel Henshall) becomes evident as he shrugs off the blatant racism of his social circle. Meantime Dino starts hankering for the crunchy-granola goodness of her college fling Kate (Andrea Demetriades) — she sells organic groceries, so she must be genuine. A steamy hookup with an androgynous tattooed babe (Ruby Rose) she meets in a bar is a step toward conquering her conflicted feelings.
This is a one-note earnest drama and that’s exactly how Ricci plays it. “Who can tell me what subtext is?” Dino asks her class at one point. Apparently not writer-director Spillane. Dino helps the students see themselves in Shakespeare by speaking their language (“Is Hamlet hot for Ophelia?”), or pointing up a contemporary cultural equivalent in Tupac Shakur’s use of rhyming couplets as social commentary. Cheesy scenes such as these peg this as trite teen fare with all the complexity of a Glee episode.
Crisply but uninterestingly shot, the film is overloaded with music and slow-mo sequences in the absence of dramatic texture. By the time the actual performance of Hamlet rolls around — complete with blackfella ceremonial elements and will-he-or-won’t-he-go-on anxiety about Liam — Around the Block has hit every predictable note it could hit, condescending to its audience as much as to its characters.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Cast: Christina Ricci, Hunter Page-Lochard, Mark Coles Smith, Daniel Henshall, Trevor Jamieson, Madeleine Madden, Matt Nable, Damian Walshe-Howling, Ursula Yovich, Jack Thomspon, Bradyn Pittman, Andrea Demetriades, Ruby Rose
Production companies: Rosen Armstrong
Director-screenwriter: Sarah Spillane
Producers: Su Armstrong, Brian Rosen
Executive producers: Jack Thompson, Gary Hamilton
Director of photography: Martin McGrath
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Music: Nick Wales
Costume designer: Justine Seymour
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Sales: Arclight Films
No rating, 103 minutes
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