Coming of age films are about as common as a teenager slamming their bedroom door. But with a little ingenuity and heart, there’s something universal about navigating those awkward social pitfalls and uncomfortable personal upheavals.
In Girl Asleep director and writer team Rosemary Myers and Matthew Whittet offer up their own addition to the canon with a memorable, comic balance of poise and chaos.
Unfolding in a bright, dreamlike version of 1970s South Australia we meet Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore), nearly fifteen and manoeuvring through a new school that includes gawky new friend Elliott (Harrison Feldman) and a trio of near-identical Queen Bees who seem to be the Australian forebears of Mean Girls’ Regina George and the Plastics.
Meanwhile at home her endearing if slightly overbearing parents (Whittet and Amber McMahon) just wish she would come out of her shell a bit. At the moment, sure, these sound like the stock standard tropes of any number of teen dramedies. But with an honest and zippy script from Whittet and disarming delivery from the largely young cast (right down to the incredible gaggle of scene-stealing extras) they’re navigated with refreshing verve. From the first opening schoolyard shot of Greta and Elliott’s first meeting Girl Asleep just looks wonderful.
We’re talking mouth agape for entire sequences because you’re so filled with wonder wonderful. Despite being frequently mundane in setting, each shot is artfully staged like a living diorama, packed with whimsical details and corner-of-your-eye visual jokes. Frequently filmed wide with an unfalteringly rich colour palette, each frame pops pinks, yellows, blues and an ever-present retro orange like a relapsed Fruit Tingle addict.
Or perhaps Wes Anderson transposed to Countdown era Australia. After a solid chunk of place setting the film at last takes a gleefully surreal turn from suburbia to the dark, pubescent wilds of Driscoll’s subconscious mind when her mum invites half the school to a birthday party she doesn’t want to have.
There’s a certain Mighty Booshiness in how the eccentrically childlike collides with more ominous and harrowing depths of her imagination. It’s about that point in your life when the scariest thing is no longer the monsters under the bed but whatever it is you’re turning into on top of it. From set design to the soundtrack, there’s barely a dropped ball to be found from cast to crew.
Whitmore is a particular standout, impressively mapping Greta’s progression from nervously pinched lips and long-suffering sideways glances to some excellent teenage outbursts and, spoiler alert, maturity.
Feldman is also allowed to drop some great, novelty t-shirt ready lines, and if nothing else the dad jokes and dance moves alone are the stuff of movie greatness. Inventive and confidently executed, this stage-to-screen translation of Windmill Theatre’s 2014 play is a bright and occasionally subversive take on teen growing pains that gives fresh legs to a familiar genre. We’re lucky to call this one our own.
Rated M. Girl Asleep is in cinemas now.