Little Sparrows -- Film Review

Little Sparrows soars thanks to great script and a lead performance that is as good as it gets.

ROME -- A gentle drama about a dying mother finding closure with her three grown daughters, Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen’s freshmen feature, “Little Sparrows,” is elevated to terrific heights by a mesmerizing performance from Nicola Bartlett, who deserves every accolade that will inevitably come her way.

This independent Australian film by the Taiwanese-born, American-educated Chen actually feels very British in its hyper-realistic, unsentimental approach. It will enjoy a good run at festivals and, as word-of-mouth grows, can count on being picked up for more and more territories around the world.

It was announced after film’s warmly received official screening at Rome that U.S. rights have been bought by Film Movement.

That this will not be your typical tearjerker is immediately established by Susan (Bartlett), when she tells her unreliable actor-husband (James Hagan) that her cancer is back and the family is about spend its last Christmas together without any maudlin sentimentality. Bartlett is so commanding and full of life that within five minutes viewers feel the hole such a woman, and such a mother, will leave in her wake.

The story then branches out into chapters based on each daughter. As in the very beginning, in which Susan speaks to the camera, interview-style, actress Nina (Nina Deasley), med student Christine (Arielle Gray) and 30-something widow Anna (Melanie Hunt) introduce themselves directly to us. Then we get a glimpse into their unresolved lives and on their individual climactic conversations with their mother in the hospital.

Maybe Little Sparrows is a fairy tale about closure – if only all children and parents could understand each other so well, in life or death – but it’s an intelligent one about an ordinary family held together by an extraordinary woman who wants to help her daughters find peace. She is the one sending them off from her death, not they to hers. That it all happens during the height of summer Down Under gives the film an added radiance in which there is no room for self-pity.

A constantly moving , very crisp Red One camera is often close to the actors’ faces, purposefully fading in and out of focus. Fast, clipped editing features numerous jump cuts, yet cinematographer Jason Thomas and editor Fil Baker know to slow things down during the film’s most cathartic scenes.

The film’s main weaknesses are a documentary approach that is never justified, and a repetitive structure. Not even this can distract from a script that is a gift to actors who pay Chen back with seemingly effortless performances. They are all such revelations it comes as a surprise that none has extensive experience in cinema.

Chen dedicates the film to her mother.

Production companies: Bolderpictures
Sales: Urban Media International
Cast: Nicola Bartlett, James Hagan, Nina Deasley, Melanie Munt, Arielle Gray, Scott Jackson, Nick Candy, Whitney Richards
Director/screenwriter: Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen
Producer: Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen, Eva Di Blasio
Director of photography: Jason Thomas
Music: Keith van Geyzel, Tim Count
Costume designer: Michelle Ridley
Editor: Fil Baker
No rating, 88 minutes