Flammable Children (Swinging Safari)


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Flammable Children
"While it's got some sections that are striking, it's a swing and a miss."

A comic slice of glossy Australgia, this is a film with two titles, trying to serve two goals. It's a warm tribute to a particular bright and relatively privileged suburban existence, the 1970s echoed in fashions and fads and fabrics, leading to the 'flammable children' of one title. So committed to period detail that it has a Wonder Years style voiceover from Richard Roxburgh. It's also an "edgy" comedy, one with so many jokes predicated upon child sexual endangerment or the presence of memorabilia for celebrities whose status as predators was not then widely known that I lost count. The 'swinging safari' of the alternate title is a record, one played as prompt for a parent's evening that has profound consequences for the cul-de-sac. That's French for bum bag. You can't buy that kind of class.

Written and directed by Stephan Elliot, whose career has highlights like Priscilla (Queen Of The Desert) and work for hire like his contribution to Rio, I Love You, it's entertaining in places, the cast are likeable, but there's enough near the knuckle that I was discomfited.

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The cast's huge, but obvious standouts include Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell, Julian McMahon, Asher Keddie, and Jeremy Sims round out the parents. There's an introductory montage, a gazetteer of grownups, a catalogue of kids. The titular children are Jeff and Melly, Atticus Rob and Darcey Wilson. It's a charming d├ębut for Atticus, and an extension of a career for Darcey that's got at least one TV remake of a classic (Wake In Fright) and a near obligatory role in an Australian soap. They're far from the only children - between them and the assorted adolescents and even with that introduction it's hard to keep track, but with competition for screen-time between marital discord and a beached whale there's a lot going on.

I laughed, several times, but some of the business with the whale left me more uneasy than For Those In Peril did, and without the subtlety. There's a drop of cetecean carcass exudate in one scene, but between the vegans and a the KFC buckets and the doomed dogs that's not the only animal concern. So too the degree of sexual activity. It is fondue and not the apple that brings temptation to this Eden, but even a flaming sword would have trouble recreating the trails of destruction. Young Jeff is a filmmaker, movie references abound, and beyond clips from Jaws and a variety of not-yet-vintage posters there's some fun. Although the reference is aided by the forthcoming remake, I did have a problem with the film paying tribute to Barbara Streisand's dress in A Star Is Born and trying to create a punchline from the phrase 'Final Solution'. There are product placements aplenty, some possibly from economic necessity and some for nostalgia, in particular those with encyclopaedic knowledge of K-Tel's non-musical products will find something to light up their eyes. This branding becomes literal at one point, a little close to the line where schadenfreude becomes cruelty.

The beached whale brings with it treasure, trauma, and young Melly's much more sensitive than the dangerous air (and films) that Jeff projects. As she withdraws there's a magazine article about a celebrity adherent of the Stillman diet that lingers on the screen to draw a chuckle, but there's less kindness there than in Todd Hayne's Superstar. Jeff's amateur films are stunt extravaganzas (I particularly liked Jaws 2 (People 0)) including a barbecue with peril in quantity enough to make the stakes unpalatable.

I may be too sensitive to this. Australian summers are no place for snowflakes. They say the past is a foreign country, here probably triply so. It's got its tongue in its cheek but some of its humour caused me gritted teeth. Attitudes to various minorities are perhaps indicative of the era, and one might even argue that there's punishment from above. That's "might" though, and it does not always make right. Period pieces set in uncomfortable times can be a risky Proposition, but some films treat it as license rather than a challenge. Flammable Children (Swinging Safari) is perhaps just enjoying the freedoms of the era, but these are not without consequence. Despite good performances, enough gloss that the plastic coverings are almost redundant, and a few good bits of humour, various undercurrents make the film less fun than it could be. While it's got some sections that are striking, it's a swing and a miss.

Picked for Best of the Fest at Edinburgh's 2018 Film Festival, I saw it near enough Lothian Road that I'll tell you a story from there. A while back, on a sunny weekday mid-afternoon, fresh from seeing La Cercle Rouge at the Filmhouse, I was walking to catch a bus and passed the Nando's on that spot between the Traverse and Festival Square. Through the big windows I saw perhaps a dozen teenage boys, some still in their school uniforms, dealing out a game of Cards Against Humanity. If your thoughts about these kids are that they're chicken legends, then have at. If you're more concerned about how even incipient privilege can make light of the commercialisation of cruelty then I'd give it a miss.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2018
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Story of teens in a Seventies beach resort that hits the headlines when a whale washes ashore, and their eccentric parents.


EIFF 2018

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