Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Little Sparrows (Bolderpictures/Film Movement, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Little Sparrows, a 2010 Australian indie written and directed by Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen, though despite the impression you might get from that heavy-duty Asian name (and she’s female, though it took me a Web search to confirm that), all the characters in the film are Anglo-Australians and it’s not an ethnic film about Asians at all. It’s an understated drama — sometimes too understated — about Susan (Nicola Bartlett), a woman living in Perth, Australia, mother of three daughters, whose breast cancer has just returned after a period of remission and who faces the Christmas holidays with the knowledge that this holiday season will be her last. (Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, December 25 is near the start of their summer, something you need to remember because otherwise you’ll be jarred by the fabulous weather and sights like people eating fresh-cut corn as part of a Christmas meal.) The daughters are facing crises of their own — Anna (Melanie Munt), the oldest, is an aspiring actress married to Mark (Scott Jackson), a rising young film director who’s just returned from Hollywood, where he’s trying to set up a movie; Nina (Nina Deasley) is a widow with two children who’s worried that her current boyfriend is cheating on her with a blonde; and Christine (Arielle Gray) is a medical student who’s just coming to an awareness of her own sexuality by dating a young woman.

There’s also Jimmy (James Hagan), Susan’s boor of a husband, who spends his time making himself obnoxious and offering unwanted advice, like telling Mark he should put his wife in his next movie in order to get her out of Perth and give her talent a chance to blossom. It’s the sort of movie in which nothing much happens — the characters just react to mom’s diagnosis and await the inevitable — and in an irony Ms. Chen no doubt intended, Susan, the middle-aged woman under a medical death sentence, is considerably happier and more “alive” than any of her relatives. The film suffers from an ultra-low budget; it was made on a digital video system (though that doesn’t stop cinematographer Jason Thomas from imposing a past-is-brown look over most of it; maybe the idea is that Australia is brown, though it sure didn’t look so in Baz Luhrmann’s marvelous Australia) and the combination of the Aussie accents and the mediocre sound recording (and the library’s notoriously bad sound system!) rendered a lot of the dialogue difficult to understand.

It’s also the sort of movie where the various plot threads don’t really resolve: at the end of the movie mom is still alive, Christine is shown necking on the beach with her girlfriend (obviously this is supposed to indicate she’s ready to Come Out after having gone around with this woman all movie but without any physical displays of affection between them), Anna is still doing acting exercises in an empty theatre and Nina … well, her storyline is the least interesting and it tends to get lost. I can understand and respect what the writer/director was trying to do — just before the credits there’s a little legend on the lower right of the screen that reads, in all lower-case letters, “for my mother,” which suggested that she’d been through the death of her mom (though according to her interview on the Facebook page of her distributor, filmmovement.com — a sort of movie-of-the-month club for devotees of independent film — it was actually her father who died, and whose loss inspired her to make the film) — the film is an attempt to make a movie as un-movielike as possible, as unexaggerated as possible and as honest about people’s real-life emotions as they are and not as decades of movie clichés have conditioned us to see them on screen. It’s just that I think she went overboard on that; the film is genuinely moving in spots and almost insufferably dull in other spots, sort of like real life, and it doesn’t tie up its story lines in neat packages.

I admire this movie for that but at the same time my mind has been sufficiently conditioned by other movies that I wanted this plot to resolve itself through something more than a series of montage sequences set to a sappy soft-rock song, “Hold You in My Arm” (what, just one?) by Ray Lamontagne, a dreary cliché Ms. Chen did not avoid and which quite frankly should be left to the folks at Lifetime. In particular, I wanted to see Susan’s death and the wrenching adjustments the family members would have to go through when the long-dreaded moment finally came. I liked Little Sparrows and at the same time I had difficulty staying awake through parts of it — and that probably comes as close as I can to exemplifying my problems with this film! Instead, the closest thing this movie comes to a conventional resolution is Susan visits a tattoo parlor and has herself tattooed with the images of three sparrows (yes, this is one of those movies in which we have to wait to the end to get an explanation of the title), symbolizing her daughters, as a way (she explains) of having them with her all the time — even, one presumes, from beyond the grave …