In recent months, Aussie film pundits have been talking up 2009 as a vintage year for local product. Samson and Delilah, My Year Without Sex, Beautiful Kate – not just high quality, these were home-grown films that punters were actually going to see. The latest addition to the field, Blessed, is a surefire contender for the strongest Australian film of the year, but – here’s the catch – one which may struggle to find its audience.
Directed by Ana Kokkinos, helmer of the highly acclaimed 1998 feature Head On, this film started life as a play in Melbourne – Who’s Afraid of The Working Class? Don’t let the theatrical origins put you off. The screenwriter has done a great job of transferring this story from a dialogue-based medium into a celluloid world where powerful imagery and moments of silence are as impressive and emotional as the gritty script.
It’s deceptively simple. The first half of the film, titled ‘The Children’, follows the different exploits of seven children over the course of 24 hours. We wander with them through various situations, gradually beginning to understand the motives for their behaviour as backgrounds and family ties are revealed.
Midway through, the film switches perspective and we are presented with ‘The Mothers’, seeing the same situations through the eyes of the five mothers of these kids, each with their own story that provides vital context for the viewer.
Each half of the movie stands alone as a portrait of disenfranchised working class families struggling to keep their heads above water – in emotional terms as well as financially. But seen together, the cumulative impact is enormous, creating a hugely moving whole that will resonate strongly with anyone who has experienced complex familial entanglements (that’s all of us, right?).
Performances are terrific. The kids are naturalistic and convincing – equal parts obnoxious and endearing with not a sniff of a stage-school brat among them. Of the mothers, my money is on Frances O’Connor receiving most of the plaudits in her against-type role as a welfare-reliant single mother who neglects her kids, smokes while pregnant and seeks solace in a series of failed relationships with unsuitable men. Deborra-Lee Furness and Miranda Otto also shine, injecting some real warmth into two potentially unsympathetic characters.
Handheld camerawork forces the viewer onto intimate terms with these people and the unglamorous Melbourne locations further contribute to a strong sense of realism.
The score is quite beautiful, reminiscent of Decoder Ring’s Somersault soundtrack and used brilliantly to underpin some of the quietly emotional moments.
Since Head On played at gay film festivals around the globe, SameSame readers won’t be surprised to hear that there is a queer strand to this web of interconnected lives. We aren’t given, and we don’t need, the full background to share the confused isolation of gay teen Arthur, known by his family as Roo.
The scene where he takes part in an amateur porn film might be confronting for some audiences, but it’s an astonishing sequence – depressingly real and ultimately heartbreaking. You’ll just wanted to reach into the screen and rescue this kid.
Okay, so this is not straightforward easy entertainment, but it is soulful and rewarding and easily worth 17 bucks and 112 minutes of your time.
Blessed has a lot to say about ordinary people leading ordinary lives and despite the overwhelming tragedy of the closing section, this is not a misery-fest – there are real moments of warmth and poignancy here, if you look for them.
See it with someone you love – you’ll appreciate a big reassuring hug afterwards.
Blessed is screening nationally.
Watch the trailer here: