Sunday, August 3, 2014

DVD/VOD/Digital debut: Sarah Spillane's tale of class/race/crime/education AROUND THE BLOCK

TrustMovies first visited Australia back in the 1970s, writing an article about the re-emergence of the Aussie film industry on the international scene, while simultaneously realizing how much like America was our brother country down under -- from its interests and economy to its sports mania, racism (including how it treated, historically, its own indigenous population) and so much more. It seemed perhaps a decade behind us on topics such as women's rights but was sure to catch up eventually. Watching the 2012 film AROUND THE BLOCK -- making its America debut this coming Tuesday via DVD, VOD and Digital -- it struck me how much has changed (a far greater amount of inter-marriage between aboriginals and Caucasians), even as so much has remained the same (race, class and a huge economic division).

The movie, efficiently written and directed by Sarah Spillane (shown at right), stars Christina Ricci (above and below, right) as a young woman who has taken a teaching job in Redfern, an inner-city area of Sydney, where she meets the usual challenges of this kind of environment: restless, often disinterested, kids; parents who are poor and/or maybe in prison; and an administration, the best hope of which is that everyone will just get through the school year intact (education in Australia and the U.S. seems rather similar, too).

The main characters are Ricci's teacher and a certain, very special student, Liam Wood, played memorably by the beautiful mixed-race actor, Hunter Page Lochard, (above, left, and below) seen previously in Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires but viewed to best advantage here. Around these two circle relatives and friends, along with former, present (and maybe future) lovers; teachers & administrators; criminals & prisoners.

Ms Spillane has bitten off quite a load here -- so many subsidiary characters and a lot of mini-plots to accompany them --  but she manages to service them all pretty well. We understand the points being made and the feelings expressed. The dialog and direction are sound, though not often much more than that.

Parent-child divisions, sexual preference waffling (above), the mounting of a Shakespeare production in the school and -- most tellingly -- a possible revenge killing load up the movie's event roster to overflow. That Spillane manages to handle all this without embarrassing herself or her cast is an accomplishment. But that is not quite the same thing as making the movie resonate and sparkle.

The filmmaker draws fine performances from her entire cast -- which includes the lovely Ursula Yovich (above, right) as mama Chrissie, Jack Thompson (who also doubled as Executive Producer on the film) as the school's chief administrator, Damian Walshe-Howling (below, left) as one of the teaching staff,  Mark Coles Smith as Liam's hot-blooded brother; and Matt Nable as their prisoner dad.

The movie single strongest  scene involves Liam telling his dad that he does not want to grow up to be anything like him -- even as he hugs his father as close as he can. The combination of words that mean one thing and emotions that contradict makes for one extraordinarily moving scene.

The film's use of Shakespeare's Hamlet -- as both the play the class must perform and for some of the themes found in Liam's and his family's own lives -- is smart and effective. In the Making of... extra on the DVD, we learn that the movie had but a 20-day shooting schedule. That's minimal for a tale this involved and a cast this large, and it may account for why the movie, though acceptable, never quite takes off into wonderful.

Around the Block -- from Random Media and Cinedigm and running 104 minutes -- is worth seeing, however, and you can do that this Tuesday, August 5, when the film arrives on DVD, VOD and digital outlets.

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