Accidents Happen -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- Adolescent angst is the focus of "Accidents Happen," a turgid melodrama based loosely on Brian Carbee's autobiographical book and one-man theater piece. Set in 1980s Connecticut but shot in Sydney, the film feels off-kilter, from its fake American accents to its pristine period props. Not content with hammering home the soul-deadening aspects of life in suburbia, "Accidents" hands viewers a death-as-catharsis moral that is creepy as it is illogical. Commercial prospects look dim, even for the home video market.

The film's biggest calling card is Geena Davis, who excels in a change-of-pace role. As housewife Gloria Conway, she responds to family crises with an impressively sullen demeanor and the occasional profane outburst.

With a son in a vegetative state, another descending into alcoholism, a daughter killed in a car crash and a husband in the arms of a beautiful young blonde, Gloria might be forgiven her caustic outlook, if not her pills and booze. It's a showy role, and Davis doesn't hold back, overpowering her fellow actors even when the script relegates her to the sidelines.

At the center of "Accidents" is young Billy Conway (Harrison Gilbertson), burdened with guilt for figuring into several fatal mishaps. (Death is so prevalent, and arrives in such complex forms, that the film threatens to turn into an Aussie "Final Destination.") Billy hides his feelings behind pranks and practical jokes, fumbles tentatively at sex and drugs and watches passively as his family and home crumble. Stoic but otherwise not especially compelling, he's too bland to give depth to a very familiar coming-of-age plot.

Carbee based a large part of his 1997 one-man show "In Search of Mike" on his mother. "Accidents" began as an attempt to soften that portrayal, but in removing the edge he has diluted his story's impact.

Making his feature debut, Andrew Lancaster -- who directed a short version of "Mike" that screened at Sundance in 2001 -- favors a solemn style that lingers over minor incidents and resorts to overhead crane shots to heighten emotions. A morose soft-rock score and muted color schemes add to the downbeat tone.

On the other hand, he stages the story's gruesome elements for laughs, perhaps the optimistic rationale for publicists tagging "Accidents" a black comedy.

The film has its affecting moments, especially when depicting Billy's rivalry with his older brother, Larry (Harry Cook). Rebecca Massey adds a welcome jolt of energy in her too-brief appearance as a freewheeling aunt. But the movie's strengths are outweighed by its pompous tone and head-scratching plot twists.

"Accidents" went through a long gestation at Aurora, a Down Under Sundance, and the result has all the earmarks of a story workshopped to death.

Production: Red Carpet Prods. and Screen Australia
Cast: Geena Davis, Harrison Gilbertson, Sebastian Gregory, Harry Cook, Joel Tobeck, Wendy Playfair, Erik Thomson, Sarah Woods, Morgan Griffin, Troy Planet, Viva Bianca, Rebecca Massey
Director: Andrew Lancaster
Screenwriter: Brian Carbee
Producer: Anthony Anderson
Executive producers: Heather Ogilvie, Graham Buckeridge, Compton Ross, Phil Hunt
Cinematographer: Ben Nott
Production designer: Elizabeth Mary Moore
Music: Antony Partos
Costume designer: Nina Edwards
Editor: Roland Gallois
Sales agent: Bankside Films (London)
No MPAA rating, 92 minutes