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An Australian teen’s 15th birthday party is the crucible in which her burgeoning adult identity is formed in Girl Asleep, the stylish, formally exuberant debut of theater director Rosemary Myers. Adapting his own play, which premiered at last year’s Adelaide Festival, screenwriter Matthew Whittet has come up with the antipodean answer to the deadpan stylizations of Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade. This is the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of play adaptations to hit Australian screens this year, but Girl Asleep is the most fluidly cinematic of the lot — despite predominantly being set in one house.
On her first day at a new school, Greta (Bethany Whitmore) meets Elliott (Harrison Feldman), a lisping geek with a big heart and the lightning-struck ginger frizz of Sideshow Bob. In a long, static opening shot, Elliott sits beside Greta on a bench and gormlessly offers his friendship as the life of the playground plays out behind (and sometimes interrupts) them. Myers, who helmed the original stage show, has reused several of that production’s cast and creative crew here, most notably production and costume designer Jonathon Oxlade, but this intro feels like a declaration. Fast-rising director of photography Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate, The Daughter) shoots it in 4:3, like the rest of the film. The frame might be symmetrical and the dialogue tartly affectless, but Myers’ formal precision feels supple rather than rote.
Set in the suburbia of the ‘70s, this is a world of browns, oranges and yellows, of socks gartered to the knee and redbrick interiors. Greta’s parents (Janet McMahon and Whittet himself) have their hands full with her sullen, bell-bottomed older sister, who brings home a smugly cool musician (Eamon Farren, the original production’s Elliott) to whom Greta feels an instant gravitational pull. Greta’s dad — in a very funny, put-upon performance from Whittet — is immediately intimidated.
Myers acknowledges the piece’s theatrical DNA by incorporating stage directions into the film’s surreal visual universe. A boy camouflaged in the wallpaper of Greta’s house turns to reveal himself, holding a card with the film’s title, and temporal leaps — an hour later, the next day — are written, Saul Bass-like, across school buildings, as well as on the occasional coffee mug.
Greta’s mum spends her time getting facials and pedaling on the exercise bike in the living room. She decides to host a birthday bash for Greta and sends out invitations to all her daughter’s classmates, to Greta’s horror. Her classmates show their appreciation by staging a song and dance routine in the hallway. These musical interludes —another occurs at the party itself, when guests skate over the threshold and break into a highly choreographed set piece — turn out to be the least of Girl Asleep’s discursions.
Fleeing the school’s presiding harpies, who humiliate her at her own party, Greta is transported into a fantastical world — evocatively summoned by designer Oxlade and art director Erica Brien — of moonlit lakes, warrior women and creatures wearing colorful, oversize animal masks.
The most obvious hangover of the film’s children’s theater origins, this sequence is stymied by the fuzziness of its psychological symbolism. Greta runs past her back porch into the woods, where she’s confronted by a sniveling wreck (Whittet) covered in mud and slime, the Huldra (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a warrior woman shrouded in fur, and a sad-sack ice-queen (McMahon). She makes it back to her bedroom only to find her sister’s lothario boyfriend, who moves in for a kiss but, rather disconcertingly, speaks in Elliott’s high-pitched voice whenever he opens his mouth.
Fragmentary as a dream, this fantasia incorporates fairy tales of every stripe: The Huldra is a wood spirit from Scandinavia, while the Sleeping Beauty tale looms large, per the film’s title. But the sequence feels like a melange, and an overextended one. For the most part this journey through the looking glass fails to illuminate anything about the girl undertaking it, though it concludes with an image striking enough to almost salvage it.
Elliott and Greta agree to stick to being best friends, and even swap outfits for the grand finale. The fluidity of Greta’s identity is now a cause for celebration instead of angst. Girl Asleep might be about an awakening, but it’s not a sexual awakening, and this is one teen comedy in which, at long last, the geek doesn’t get the girl.
Production Company: Soft Tread Enterprises, Windmill Theatre
Cast: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Eamon Farren, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Imogen Archer, Maiah Stewardson
Director: Rosemary Myers
Writer: Matthew Whittet
Producer: Jo Dyer
Executive producer: Teena Munn
Director of photography: Andrew Commis
Production and costume designer: Jonathon Oxlade
Art Director: Erica Brien
Editor: Karryn de Cinque
Music: Harry Covill
Sound Design: Luke Smiles
No rating, 77 minutes
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