'Australia Day’: Film Review | Sydney 2017

Australia Day
As subtle as a hammer to the head.

'Red Dog' filmmaker Kriv Stenders juggles a surfeit of hot-button issues in this ensemble drama.

"Brown skin can do just as much damage as white," says one of the many angry young men in Australia Day, a crudely sketched drama about race relations making its debut at the Sydney Film Festival. The line’s delivered in the middle of a beating, and the victim isn't the only one being bludgeoned.

Ticking off everything from the dark side of Aussie bro-culture to sex trafficking to farmer suicide and the tensions between Indigenous Australians and the police, this tin-eared feature from director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) and writer Stephen M. Irwin (Secrets & Lies) feels somehow both overstuffed and depthless. Produced by Australian cable provider Foxtel, Australia Day is every inch the TV-movie, with characters who collide, clash and learn to be better people with schematic precision.

Set on the titular day — celebrating the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival and now a point of contention in Oz society, where it’s frequently labeled Invasion Day — this mercifully fleet polemic is akin to Crash in its unspooling of separate stories that link up to illuminate a city's roiling stew of prejudices.

Stenders opens with an ominous view of the Australian city of Brisbane from above, humid and still but about to erupt, then cuts to not one but three foot-chases. The briefest ends with first-generation Persian-Australian Sami (Elias Anton) run down by two white surfer types, who are convinced — for reasons mysterious — that Sami has drugged and perhaps even assaulted the younger sister of their mate Dean (Sean Keenan). They take him back to their house, where he's beaten in the garage as Dean's increasingly conflicted younger brother Jason (11.22.63's Daniel Webber) looks on.

The dynamic between Jason and his older brother has been seen in countless Aussie films, from Romper Stomper to Snowtown, but it's gestured at rather than dramatized here. Recourse to torture is blithely accepted by Dean and his buddies, and none of them emerge as much more than mouthpieces — symbols of the dark side of Australian suburbia but unconvincing in the particulars, with no interior lives of their own. The portrait of toxic masculinity on show here is hardly subtler than in last year's pitch-black comedy Down Under, only those characters weren't meant to be naturalistic.

In Australia Day, young white men wear flags as capes and tell an Aboriginal girl the country is "ours now". The teenager they're taunting, April (Miah Madden), is on the run from the police after killing her abusive father with a hammer. A high-speed chase has left her sister dead, and the cop who was behind the wheel, Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens), is trying to find April before she's lost to the juvenile system for good. Indigenous herself and driven by guilt over not having taken the sisters from their father when she had the chance, Mackenzie is always one step ahead of the official manhunt — to the annoyance of the officer on the case, Detective Collyer (Matthew Le Nevez).

Collyer is the son of Terry, played by Aussie stalwart Bryan Brown (Cocktail). Unbeknownst to his son, Terry has lost the family farm to the bank and is in town to make a bloody point at a press conference attended by the Minister for Agriculture. His plan is complicated when a Chinese girl, Lan (Jenny Wu), jumps in front of his vehicle, screaming to be saved from a bald-headed man (Kee Chan) in pursuit. Terry's determination to carry out his plan leads him to deposit the girl at the local police station despite her protestations, but the Vietnam vet becomes her protector when the "uncle" who turns up to claim her turns violent.

Australia Day's characters feel like pieces on a chessboard, shoehorned into place with utter predictability. When Sami escapes from the bros in the garage and returns home, his mother takes one look at his bruises and tells his older brother, drug-dealer Yaghoub (Phoenix Raei), to get payback — to “be a man”. Cue Sami's return to the house of horrors to convince his brother, with clear-sighted beneficence, to stop the cycle of violence. His mother's entreaty to whoop ass feels more convincing as a screenwriting conceit to engineer that redemptive climax than it does an explicable human reaction, maternal or otherwise — ditto Terry’s highly changeable sense of empathy.

Well-intentioned but too neat by half, Australia Day presents not characters but cogs without a pulse.

Production company: Hoodlum

Cast: Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens, Sean Keenan, Elias Anton, Daniel Webber, Jenny Wu, Matthew Le Nevez, Phoenix Raei, Miah Madden

Director: Kriv Stenders

Screenwriter: Stephen M. Irwin 

Producers: Nathan Mayfield, Leigh McGrath, Tracey Robertson, Edward Herbert

Executive producers: Nathan Mayfield, Tracey Robertson, Leigh McGrath, Deanne Weir, Penny Win

Director of photography: Geoffrey Hall

Costume designer: Vanessa Loh

Production designer: Matt Putland

Editor: Nick Meyers

Composer: Matteo Zingales

Casting: Tom McSweeney, David Newman

94 minutes