The 14- year- old virgin
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