The 14- year- old vir­gin

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

ES­THER Blue­burger ( Danielle Catan­zariti) is a plain, 14- year- old Jewish girl liv­ing in a posh Ade­laide sub­urb with her stuffy fam­ily. At school she’s tor­mented for her gawky ap­pear­ance and se­cre­tive ways. Her brother, Ja­cob ( Chris­tian Byers), a maths ge­nius, cal­cu­lates that her den­tal braces will have to stay on un­til 2055. She adopts a baby duck­ling, stolen from the science lab at school, and takes it home.

Friend­less and mis­er­able, at war with her mother, sen­tenced to clean­ing du­ties by the mean­est of pre­fects for the most triv­ial uni­form in­fringe­ment, Es­ther finds God in a toi­let bowl. ‘‘ Are you there, God?’’ she prays. ‘‘ Get me out of here. Please! Amen.’’

Since God, as we know, helps those who help them­selves, Es­ther’s prayers are an­swered. Tak­ing her fu­ture into her own hands, she changes schools with­out her par­ents’ knowl­edge, switch­ing from Ro­den, with its spa­cious grounds and hand­some Ge­or­gian build­ings, to the sim­pler plea­sures of work­ing- class Yel­low Hill Pub­lic.

This re­quires her to pose as a Swedish ex­change stu­dent in an elab­o­rate con­spir­acy in­volv­ing her best — and only — friend, Sunni ( Keisha Cas­tle- Hughes) and Sunni’s oblig­ing mum ( Toni Col­lette).

At Yel­low Hill, life is more re­laxed. Es­ther is no longer re­quired to dis­sect her pet duck­ling in bi­ol­ogy class, she has a cool teacher and Sunni is sur­rep­ti­tiously in­vited to her bat mitz­vah ( the prepa­ra­tions for which augur badly). De­ter­mined not to be an­other 14- year- old vir­gin, Es­ther re­solves to do some­thing about that prob­lem as well.

Whether God is pre­pared to help 14- year- old girls cast off their vir­gin­ity may be a ques­tion for the­olo­gians. There is ev­i­dence, how­ever, that he is will­ing to help young Aus­tralian film­mak­ers take risks with their first film. Hey Hey It’s Es­ther Blue­burger, writ­ten and di­rected by Cathy Ran­dall, cer­tainly takes plenty of risks. Its story is wildly im­prob­a­ble, its quirk­i­ness quo­tient ap­proaches lev­els scarcely seen since The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it’s an open ques­tion whether we need an­other Aus­tralian com­edy about ado­les­cent angst and alien­ation. When the girl in the ti­tle role has had no pre­vi­ous act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, there is ev­ery chance that the re­sults will be un­for­tu­nate.

But Ran­dall’s film has much un­ex­pected charm and its sin­is­ter hu­mour en­sures that the most facile ob­ser­va­tions on pubescent tor­ment, sub­ur­ban snob­bery and the value of friend­ship are free of sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

Rather than of­fer­ing an hon­est slice of life, Ran­dall has gone for a kind of an­ar­chic hy­per­re­al­ity, mak­ing strik­ing use of a wide screen and strong colours, with a nar­ra­tive style so fluid and jaunty that ev­ery­thing seems to have been lightly chore­ographed, like the open­ing shots of cartwheel­ing school­girls.

The film feels fresh and dif­fer­ent from the start, so con­fi­dent of its pur­poses, that I wish I could call it a com­plete suc­cess. The script ( Ran­dall was nom­i­nated for an Awgie award for an un­pro­duced screen­play) is more than a few de­grees too clever for its own good.

Es­ther we can take to be a fe­male Holden Caulfield or an­other ver­sion of the trou­bled ado­les­cent hero of The Year My Voice Broke. Catan­zariti plays her with an ap­peal­ing soul­ful­ness, but she never seems to in­habit a recog­nis­able world of ex­pe­ri­ence. Of course we can see the point: Es­ther’s dear­est wish is to be her­self, to as­sert her iden­tity in a world ruled by con­form­ist pres­sures and the in­stincts of the herd. She is a role model for ev­ery trou­bled teenage girl anx­ious to break the mould and taste life’s pos­si­bil­i­ties.

But this Es­ther is lit­tle more than a car­i­ca­ture. Her dilemma is seen through a prism of Jewish­ness, but her Jewish­ness is in­ci­den­tal, and her solemn, in­tro­spec­tive ways — while pa­thetic enough — never touch us deeply. I ad­mired Cas­tle- Hughes’s stud­ied de­tach­ment as Sunni, but kept wish­ing for more round­ed­ness and an­i­ma­tion in this cool, know­ing girl, the one to whom Es­ther has given her trust.

The film is most con­vinc­ing in its scenes with Mary, the sin­gle mother. No one is bet­ter than Col­lette at play­ing a put- upon mum with a heart of gold ( as we see in The Black Bal­loon) and Mary gives the film a core of gen­uine vi­tal­ity. Sunni’s dad is a bikie miss­ing some­where in New Zealand and Mary is on her own. It may be a weak­ness of the script, or the strength of Col­lette’s per­for­mance, that we care for her more than we do for the cen­tral char­ac­ters.

Even­tu­ally the de­ter­mined mood of comic ec­cen­tric­ity be­comes a dis­trac­tion. Es­ther’s sex­ual ini­ti­a­tion takes place to mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment in a neon- lit trash bin in some de­serted al­ley and the fam­ily sub­mits to a psy­chi­atric con­sul­ta­tion at which no words are ex­changed. Up to a point, it’s funny. Es­ther’s snobby, nar­row- minded mother ( Essie Davis), the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of blink­ered parental rec­ti­tude, de­clares that ‘‘ there’s some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong with this fam­ily’’. And in­deed there is. We are meant to as­sume that it is largely the par­ents’ fault, es­pe­cially the mother’s.

A con­ven­tional up­bring­ing in a lov­ing, mid­dle- class house­hold may be the root of all teenage neu­ro­sis, but real life — though we see lit­tle of it here — is prob­a­bly more com­pli­cated. There is some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong with Sunni’s fam­ily as well, though no one cares to ad­mit it.

Quirks, strange­ness and charm: Keisha Cas­tle- Hughes, left, and Danielle Catan­zariti as best friends in Cathy Ran­dall’s bright de­but fea­ture film, Hey Hey It’s Es­ther Blue­burger

Catcher in the wry: From left, Catan­zariti, Cas­tle- Hughes, Nikita Adams and Daniela Gan­ter

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