Accidents Happen (Andrew Lancaster, Australia, 2009)
This film is quite an achievement, a very clever dysfunctional family black comedy. Its succeeds on at least two fronts. If you didn't know otherwise, there is almost nothing to suggest the film was made in Australia. It's set in Connecticut (as is the novel it is based on, by American-born author now living in Australia, Brian Carbee) and, other than Geena Davis in the lead role, most of the remaining cast are Australians. While it is relatively easy to recreate the American mid-west (cars, flag-poles, etc), it's the seamless use of accents that I found most impressive.
The Australian kitchen-sink dramas (KSDs) of recent years have usually not failed, but not succeeded either. They kind of sit in this nether region where they look nice, have good performances and handle worthy subjects, but never really get off the ground dramatically. Another success of Accidents Happen is that it has taken a genre that has been done to death, and injected pizzazz or oomph. It's got that wow-factor that US quirky indie comedies (QICs) aspire for, but have done to death as much as we've done our KSDs to death, but with a freshness and darkness the QICs lack. You could say that Accidents Happen takes the best of both KSD and QIC genres and leaves out what's hackneyed, and come up with a really fresh oddball film that works.
Davis plays the mother of an accident-prone family. She's bitter, foul-mouthed with wit and is perfect for the role. I've mentioned recently that English-language films don't seem to offer interesting roles for women - most of the interesting roles have fairly limited appeal and are usually chick-flicks. This character is a joy to behold and a gift to Davis (and vice versa), who injects the film with humour, energy and ultimately, warmth.
While the support cast (including Harry Cook and Joel Tobeck) are strong, special mention also goes to Harrison Gilbertson as the youngest son who is most prominent in the film. He's perfect for his role as the good but damaged and guilt-ridden son who parents the mother and puts up with the taunts of his brother (Cook). There's a pathos to the character that is both endearing and moving.
Like most good comedy, the story works because it has a foundation in reality. It's stylised, but underneath we can believe the scenarios presented. I know I can - I've been in multiple serious accidents (god only knows how I survived) and lost a child. The depictions of a family coming to terms with its various misfortunes ring true and are simultaneously funny and tragic.
The film's recurring theme song is terrific; in fact the music throughout is very good - perhaps unsurprising given the director has a musical background. The visuals are also excellent, with some lovely slo-mo shots of various accidents in close-up. The film has a dreamy look about it with the use of lighting and atmospherics. The whole production design has a lovely feel to it.
I noticed David Stratton on At the Movies questioning why an Australian film, made in Australian with mostly Australian actors should depict an American story. I think this is unnecessarily picky. It's not the first local film to do it. Virtually all of the scenes set in America in Mao's Last Dancer were shot in Sydney, for example. It's also not evident that Happy Feet is an Australian production. The Machinist (starring Christian Bale) and Planet 51 both appear to be American films, but are produced in Spain. For me, Accidents Happen showcases what we are capable of in terms of taking on the Americans at their own game and in our ability to adapt and diversify. Hey, we're doing something different and let's celebrate that!
I think the direction the local film industry is taking is a good thing. I've often said that what the industry needs is a steady number of runs on the board, and with Beneath Hill 60 also currently screening, that's two strong local films that local audiences should have no trouble connecting with and feeling good about what we produce. We need films like this, that audiences will go to because they want some good entertainment, and not because they're feeling charitable and a need to support the local industry. If we can continue to do this over a period of time, perhaps we can do what Germany has achieved over the last decade or so: lifted the percentage of local film attendances from around 5% to the current 25%. It's do-able.
Out of interest, I thought I'd peruse the multiplexes to see how widely the film is being screened. I was more than a little surprised to find that neither Hoyts, Greater Union nor Reading were screening it and Village has it on one screen only - the Rivoli (where I saw it), in their smallest cinema, which only has six rows of seats! I just don't get that at all. This seems to be a clear bias against Australian films, even though the casual viewer would have no idea it's not American and even though it's better than most films of the genre from America. There's clearly shit going down here and I'm not impressed with the distinct disregard of the big muscle players.