Australian cinema may be best known for its gritty action films and even grimier crime dramas, but leave it to a first time filmmaker from “down under” to give the film world one of 2016’s most enjoyable, and original, teen comedies. Billed as a blending of Wes Anderson aesthetics and Lewis Carroll surrealism, freshman filmmaker Rosemary Myer’s Girl Asleep may sound, superficially, like an insufferably twee coming of age tale that has garnered more comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite than one may be comfortable with, but it’s truly a delightful achievement, particularly when it devolves into the surreal farce that is its third act.
The film introduces us to Greta Driscoll, a charming, but unassuming, 14-year-old as she heads towards her upcoming 15th birthday. A quiet wallflower of sorts, we first see Greta as she sits at a bench during a break from school, where she encounters a young man named Elliott. Equally as socially awkward but less afraid to embark on a conversation, Elliott puts into the mind of Greta’s parents the idea of throwing her a birthday party, which she patently rejects, only to have a surprise one thrown anyways. Shot in 4:3, the film continues as a potentially magical music box is introduced, that, after a fight between Elliott and Greta breaks down during the birthday party, turns the film into something less absurd and more fairy-tale like and breathlessly surreal.
Penned by Matthew Whittet (who also stars as Greta’s father), the film is based on Whittet’s stage play, and for the most part plays to strict coming-of-age tropes. Greta’s story is one of being entirely uncomfortable in one’s skin, only made worse when we meet a Plastics-style trio of menacing bullies named Amber, Jade and Sapphire. With the volume of the characterizations turned up slightly, the film attempts to portray the volatile state of burgeoning womanhood through a rightfully surreal lense.
That being said, aesthetics is the film’s strongest suit. Again, shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film is a shockingly beautiful piece, with both Myers and production designer Jonathan Oxlade embedding a heightened sense of almost ‘70s-style kitsch in each and every frame. Costuming is superb, and Oxlade’s design work throughout the film perfectly set up a world that feels just a touch above our own reality. The photography here is warm and inviting, that is until the third act arrives and we are thrust into a Bruno Bettelheim-like fairy-tale world, which itself expands the cinematic language of the film with its jittery direction. Not afraid to employ moments of magical realism throughout the film, Myers takes moments like an LP cover coming to life, and uses these small moments of surrealism to build a world and attempt to dive deep into the state of our lead.
Speaking of our lead, Greta is played by Bethany Whitmore, and the young actress is clearly this film’s breakout star. Her performance is striking in that, in a film that feels so heightened, she is giving a decidedly naturalistic performance, one that can be seen as primarily a passive one, but one that fits within the film’s greater narrative and its themes. There’s a truth to her performance, and it feels quite lived in. Harrison Feldman plays Elliott, and he’s more fitting in the film’s greater tone. Utterly absurd in just about every way, the lanky, ginger-haired youngster is fine, but can come off as grating for much of the film’s beginning. Amber McMahon and the aforementioned Matthew Whittet play Greta’s parents and they are even more heightened, helping to really emphasize the type of absurdity that teens feel themselves surrounded by.
Girl Asleep is a small Aussie import that plays on tropes that we’ve seen discussed on the big screen for ages, but ultimately does so in an engrossing and inventively surreal way, turning the typical coming of age story into a modern fairy tale. Not much more than a curio for comedy fans, Myers’ debut feature is a perfectly pleasant picture that, at 77 minutes, is bound to be a smash hit on the VOD circuit.