SYDNEY -- "Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger" is an Australian coming-of-age comedy that's as self-consciously quirky as its title.
First-time writer-director Cathy Randall would have done well to dial down the eccentricity and concentrate on evening out the tone, which oscillates between cutesy and creepy with a jarring third-act detour into melodrama.
The misfit Jewish girl of the title (played by newcomer Danielle Catanzariti) bears more than a passing resemblance to Heather Matarazzo's nerdy 12-year-old in "Welcome to the Dollhouse." But Randall doesn't have the fine-tuned satirical sensibility that allowed Todd Solondz to hit just the right note between comedy and pain.
The presence of Toni Collette and Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider") should help its profile, but this Disney-backed film is too left of center to appeal to the mainstream when it opens March 20 in Australia.
"Esther" takes a kitchen-sink approach to the teen issues it canvasses -- bullying, peer pressure, family dysfunction and sexual awakening among them -- so there's something for everyone as far as the adolescent target audience is concerned.
But some of it is dubious fare. Esther's back-alley experimentation with a classmate, for example, is more disquieting than droll. And the behavior exhibited by her number-crunching twin brother Jacob (Christian Byers) is not so much idiosyncratic as downright scary. Little wonder the entire family winds up in a psychiatrist's office.
Esther is a tiny, beetle-browed 13-year-old tormented by her perfectionist mother's (Essie Davis) preparations for her upcoming bat-mitzvah and by the taunting of classmates at her ultra-conformist all-girls private school. The girls make fun of her dorky look and peculiar habits, and she spends lonely lunch hours talking to God through a toilet bowl. It's that kind of quirky.
Her oddness catches the eye of Sunni (Castle-Hughes), a tough-nut drummer from a nearby public school, who befriends Esther. Together they hatch a plan: Esther borrows Sunni's spare school uniform and secretly changes schools, fooling her parents while exploring an exciting new universe that includes hanging out with the cool kids and Sunni's hip, laid-back mother, Mary (Collette.)
In her desperation to fit in, Esther's natural adolescent self-absorption takes an unpleasant turn, and she starts to alienate everyone (except the pet duckling named Normal that follows her everywhere and is somewhat labored as a metaphor.)
Production designer Nell Hanson, costume designer Shareen Beringer and cinematographer Anna Howard use a Skittles-colored palette to create a heightened reality that mirrors Esther's internal fantasy world. The film boasts a great indie soundtrack dominated by upbeat Australian bands.
HEY HEY IT'S ESTHER BLUEBERGER
Screenwriter-director: Cathy Randall
Producer: Miriam Stein
Executive producers: Heather Ogilvie, Stephen Hays, Peter Graham, Anton Rosenberg, Toni Collette
Director of photography: Anna Howard
Production designer: Nell Hanson
Music: Guy Gross
Co-producer: Harry Clein
Costume designer: Shareen Beringer
Editor: Dany Cooper
Esther: Danielle Catanzariti
Sunni: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Mary: Toni Collette
Jacob: Christian Byers
Grace: Essie Davis
Osmond: Russell Dykstra
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating