Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? A new local film that has had some festival acclaim. And: Mendo!
A couple of young people meet at random on a Sydney train station; Milla, a naive teenager from an upper middle class family, and Moses, a knockabout bloke in his twenties living on the streets. They have nothing in common other than a bit of unexpected chemistry, cemented when Moses agrees to cut Milla’s hair aggressively short. Soon, they are spending a lot of time together; but what is this relationship?
There are also complications. Milla’s parents are suitably horrified, although they try and play it cool. They are also grappling with their own problems; her mother, Anna, lost in a sea of prescription meds, her father, Henry, struggling to cope with his wife’s mood swings. And then the big one: Milla is stricken with cancer.
There have been a lot of movies about a terminally ill character, getting one shot at living via a sudden romance. Think; ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, ‘Now is Good’, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, ‘Five Feet Apart’, and a million others. This is not new territory for a film, which is probably the main strike against this one. But the film makers have striven to supply their characters with depth.
Milla might be green, and a little in awe of Moses, but she is also fierce. She wants to control as much of her life as possible, while she can, and is not afraid to push back to do so. Likewise, Moses is not your typical charismatic deadbeat; you can sense something below the surface, and Milla’s attraction to him rings true.
She wants to be with him, but she also just wants to be around him. It is sexual, but experiential; he is exotic, living a life she wouldn’t normally see, and the film strikes a delicate balance on this point. Milla’s interest is real, but also a bit voyeuristic, a mixture of positive and negative elements. The two young actors playing these parts, Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace, are both excellent.
And you are a lucky first time film maker (TV director Shannon Murphy) if you can line up Australian acting royalty for your supporting cast; Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis as Milla’s parents. For these two veterans, acting seems about the same as breathing; which belies the craft involved, and shows how well they inhabit these characters. Their messy relationship, and many ups and downs, are entirely believable, and the characters feel lived in.
Rita Kelnajais adapted her own novel, and the film shows signs of its literary origin. The pithy headings that introduce each section of the film, breaking it up into mini chapters, seem like a device best suited to a book; likewise some of the peripheral characters and plot strands feel a bit undernourished. This is especially true regarding the family’s neighbour; a soon to be single mum who Henry is attracted to. After setting this subplot in motion, this character disppears for an extended stretch, later returning as a benign family friend who joins them on outings. I’d guess this was more fleshed out in the novel.
But none of that matters while the film focusses on its central foursome, even less so when we arrive at the ending. The film wraps with a pair of scenes that are quite different, connected by their emotional intensity. Milla dies suddenly, leaving her shattered parents to lament that they never got a chance to say goodbye. We then get a flashback to a final happy day at the beach, where you realise Milla DID say goodbye. Watching Mendo try to process this, while he takes endless photos of his daughter, trying to catch one last bit of her somehow, is one of the best and most moving scenes of the year. A heartbreaking and lovely moment, delivered with perfect simplicity, that will stay with me for a long time.
I sat right through the opening credits, which I don’t do often, watching the waves break on the beach.