Venice 2015: The state of independents

Looking For Grace, The Daughter, Equals, The Childhood Of A Leader

by Damon Wise

Odessa Young and Richard Roxburgh in Looking For Grace - 'For once the fractured narrative approach really does work.'
Odessa Young and Richard Roxburgh in Looking For Grace - 'For once the fractured narrative approach really does work.'
The scarcity of US indies at this year’s Venice Film Festival throws an interesting light on two Australian entries – Sue Brooks’ Official Competition film Looking For Grace and Simon Stone’s The Daughter, which is screening in Venice Days. With just a few tweaks, both could easily become Sundance competition entries, dealing with family skeletons in the suburbs and the sticks respectively. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but Brooks’ film is perhaps the most satisfying, an elliptical road movie that begins with the title character (Odessa Young) taking a trip across country with her best friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson).

Where Grace is going is initially withheld, instead we see a teenage love affair unfold as she meets a mysterious stranger who seduces her and drives a wedge between the two friends. After spending the night with him, Grace awakes to find him gone – taking her money with him. Just how much has been taken we won’t know for a while; from Grace, Brooks cuts to a series of different characters – notably her parents Dan and Denise (Richard Roxburgh and Radha Mitchell) and the elderly, semi-retired PI who has come on board to help (Terry Norris).

There are some wonderful moments, some provided by Brooks’s self-penned, seriocomic script, others from Katie Milright’s gorgeous cinematography and, for once, the fractured narrative approach really does work. Eagle eyes will work out where the film is going when one vignette ends quite abruptly, and though it does result in somewhat overheated melodrama, Looking For Grace is much more memorable than it might seem at the time. One of the reasons for this is the much buzzed-about newcomer Young, who gives Grace not just a luminosity but a vulnerable quality that’s at odds with her apparent petulance.

Odessa Young in The Daughter
Odessa Young in The Daughter
Young gets a much juicier part in The Daughter, in which she also plays the title character. Based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, this is much darker territory, beginning and ending with a single shot, possibly from the same gun. This time the focus is not one but two families – the rich Neilsons, headed by patriarch Henry (Geoffrey Rush) and the blue-collar Finches, whose grandfather Walter (Sam Neill) is Henry’s trusty retainer. Both their worlds collide when, on the occasion of his marriage to a much younger woman, Henry’s estranged son Christian (Paul Schneider) returns from the US with a score to settle.

As with Looking For Grace, this has its standouts, one of them being Ewen Leslie’s Oliver, Christian’s buddy from youth and breadwinner of the Finch household. Less charismatic is the spiteful and self-obsessed Christian, whose selfish machinations will ruin everyone’s lives with much more finality than the secret he wields. Again, sharp eyes will soon pick enough clues to spot where the narrative is headed – one being the title – but Stone’s insistence on staying true to Ibsen undermines the big reveal. Although it has powerful emotional resonance, the payoff now seems a little old-fashioned and contrived.

Kristen Stewart in Equals
Kristen Stewart in Equals
From the US, two very well-known Sundance names brought their new projects, and neither of them could have been more different. For Drake Doremus, however, the unexpected proves not to be his (or our) comfort zone; set in a pristine white future dystopia, Equals (full review), screening in the Official Competition, is far from the freewheeling, semi-improvised dramas with which he made his name (Like Crazy, Breathe In). Into this sterile world, which mostly resembles an off-season conference centre, Doremus throws Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), a puppy-eyed duo who will fall in love – in defiance of the strict laws forbidding emotional experiences of any kind.

It sounds familiar because it is; even if Gattaca hadn’t diluted it for the masses there would still be George Lucas’s THX 1138, to which this film owes such a massive debt, Lucas may well have grounds to repossess Doremus’ house. There’s a bit of subplot involving a resistance movement – a chance to feature supporting stars Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver – but the sci-fi trimmings all but fall away when Doremus resorts to what he knows bests, which is lots of meaningful close-ups and tinkly music. We know from past experience that he does this very well, but here the backdrop simply isn’t solid or original enough.

No one could say that about Brady Corbet’s debut The Childhood Of A Leader, featured in the Orrizzonti section, which has already been unfairly slammed as “embarrassingly over-ambitious” - as if a 27-year-old American should start with a nice little stoner comedy and stay away from grown-up issues. It is true that the film is divisive, but only in a good way; anyone with a high tolerance for slow, impressionistic cinema will find plenty to get lost in. Though Corbet regularly cites eastern European cinema in his interests, his debut has much more of traditional European feel; indeed it may seem like unfeasibly high praise but there are echoes of the masters (Luchino Visconti, notably) in Lol Crawley’s superb 35mm cinematography.

The Childhood Of A Leader
The Childhood Of A Leader
Set in 1919, the story itself is a riddle in three fragments, three chapters that refer to a tantrum the titular child (Tom Sweet) will have over the course of nearly two hours. We never hear his name but we do feel his presence; the boy, as his father, an American political advisor notes, has begun to change. This starts with a little stone-throwing and escalates into all-out war during a fancy dinner party. Oddly, however, no broader psychology is ever explored, and Corbet stays with the minor details of the boy’s life, which is hermetically sealed away from the immediate aftermath of the The Great War, something his father is very deeply immersed in. The boy cares nothing for reparations, insisting instead that he learn to read Aesop’s Fables in rapidly improving French.

It sounds like a slow-paced chamber piece, and some scenes are, but a brilliant framing device involving a stunning orchestral score by, of all people, Scott Walker gives the film a nerve-wracking urgency. The ending is a what-the-hell talking point for sure, but there are ideas and provocations here that will ensure Corbet’s film lives a long if not especially commercial life.

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