Close-up yields sub­ur­ban se­crets

Bro­ken A Place for Me Spring Break­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

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WATCH­ING Bro­ken, a su­perbly acted and emo­tion­ally wrench­ing Bri­tish film from ac­claimed theatre di­rec­tor Ru­fus Nor­ris, I was re­minded of the so-called kitchen sink move­ment in Bri­tish cin­ema. This be­gan in the late 1950s with films such as Room at the Top, Satur­day Night and Sun­day Morn­ing, A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving, which were in their own ways as strik­ingly fresh as the con­cur­rent French new wave films. Both move­ments broke with the more com­fort­able con­ven­tions of the cin­ema that pre­ceded them and in­tro­duced new di­rec­tors, among them for­mer crit­ics, doc­u­men­tary mak­ers and stage di­rec­tors.

The Bri­tish films were in­vari­ably set in the Mid­lands and north of Eng­land, among work­ing­class peo­ple, and they in­tro­duced a gen­er­a­tion of new ac­tors, among them Alan Bates, Al­bert Fin­ney, Tom Courte­nay and Rita Tush­ing­ham.

We don’t see enough new Bri­tish films in cinemas th­ese days to be able to de­ter­mine if Bro­ken is part of a sim­i­lar move­ment, but its im­pact is great. And it in­tro­duces an ex­tra­or­di­nary young ac­tress in 11-year-old Eloise Lau­rence, who plays the char­ac­ter around whom the drama un­folds.

Ev­ery­one calls her Skunk, a most un­flat­ter­ing name she seems to ac­cept with­out com­plaint. She lives with her fa­ther, Archie (Tim Roth), a lawyer, and her brother in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in north Lon­don. The nar­ra­tive re­volves al­most en­tirely around just three houses in this very or­di­nary street, a rea­son­ably af­flu­ent, mid­dle-class neigh­bour­hood by the look of it, but with sim­mer­ing ten­sions and vi­o­lence lurk­ing just be­neath the sur­face.

Skunk’s mother left the fam­ily some time ear­lier; her busy fa­ther has never re­ally re­cov­ered from be­ing aban­doned, though he’s able to cope with the chil­dren and house­hold chores thanks to the pres­ence of a live-in au pair, Ka­sia (Zana Mar­janovic).

In the con­fronting open­ing se­quence, Skunk is pass­ing the time of day with one of her neigh­bours, Rick (Robert Emms), who is wash­ing his par­ents’ car. Rick has men­tal prob­lems — he needs spe­cial care but seems to be a good­na­tured kid. Sud­denly an­other neigh­bour, Oswald (Rory Kin­n­ear), emerges from his house in blind fury and at­tacks Rick, beat­ing him sav­agely. The rea­son for this thug­gish be­hav­iour soon be­comes clear: Oswald is a wid­ower try­ing, rather un­suc­cess­fully, to rear three way­ward, self­ish and ma­nip­u­la­tive daugh­ters. One of them has falsely ac­cused Rick of rap­ing her, hence her fa­ther’s wrath­ful and ill-con­sid­ered vi­o­lence.

But this is just the start of a se­ries of events that will in­volve th­ese three dys­func­tional fam­i­lies as well as a pe­riph­eral char­ac­ter, Mike (Cil­lian Mur­phy), a teacher at the school the girls at­tend and lover of Ka­sia. If the adults are trou­bled, the chil­dren are even more af­fected. Skunk is the film’s moral cen­tre, but she is un­well, suf­fer­ing from di­a­betes and hav­ing to check her sugar lev­els con­stantly.

Based on a novel by Daniel Clay, Bro­ken of­fers an un­set­tling de­pic­tion of a so­ci­ety in dis­tress. This is par­tic­u­larly true of the Oswald fam­ily, led by a dam­aged fa­ther who is in­ca­pable of rear­ing three un­ruly and amoral daugh­ters as ac­cept­able mem­bers of so­ci­ety. Along­side them, in­no­cents such as Skunk, Rick and, to an ex­tent, Mike, stand no chance; they be­come col­lat­eral dam­age when th­ese foul-mouthed bul­lies shame­lessly spread lies and de­struc­tion at ev­ery turn. Yet the film suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing sym­pa­thy for th­ese girls, de­spite their an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour; their fa­ther is a vi­o­lent bully too.

For his first fea­ture film, Nor­ris has homed in on a world in which, just be­neath the sur­face of com­fort­able suburbia, ter­ri­ble things are go­ing on. His ten­dency to present the re­sults of an act be­fore show­ing the act it­self is a lit­tle jar­ring at first, but once you get used to it the emo­tional power of the film fully takes hold. To­wards the end, po­ten­tially melo­dra­matic ma­te­rial is just about held in check, thanks to the in­tel­li­gent di­rec­tion and the su­perb per­for­mances.

Ev­ery­one is good in this film, but Lau­rence is a rev­e­la­tion, a child ac­tress of ex­cep­tional strength and range. COM­PARED with Bro­ken, the prob­lems faced by the char­ac­ters in in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can film A Place for Me (aka Writ­ers, aka Stuck in Love — it’s a film that seems to have had dif­fi­culty de­cid­ing on a ti­tle) seem mi­nor in­deed. As the orig­i­nal ti­tle sug­gests, it’s about mem­bers of a fam­ily of lit­er­ary types, high achiev­ers but fac­ing fa­mil­iar prob­lems. Sa­man­tha, played by Lily Collins, is a stu­dent in her early 20s who has just suc­ceeded in get­ting her first novel pub­lished with­out any help from her fa­ther, an es­tab­lished author. Sa­man­tha is as at­trac­tive as she is tal­ented, but she has dif­fi­culty with re­la­tion­ships, keep­ing the like­li­est prospect for ro­mance, a nice fel­low called Lou (Lo­gan Ler­man), who cares for his ter­mi­nally ill mother, at bay for most of the movie. Her kid brother Rusty (Nat Wolff) is a huge fan of Stephen King and wants to write like him; he fan­cies Kate (Liana Lib­er­ato), a girl at school, but she has a lot of prob­lems.

The par­ents of th­ese tal­ented but emo­tion­ally re­tarded kids are sep­a­rated. Bill (Greg Kin­n­ear) hasn’t been able to get a book pub­lished since his wife, Erica (Jennifer Con­nelly), left him for an­other man; he’s so sure she’ll come back one day that he al­ways lays a place for her at Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, which in­fu­ri­ates Sa­man­tha, who hates her mother.

Josh Boone wrote and di­rected this per­fectly ami­able but not very sub­stan­tial film. He elic­its strong per­for­mances from his cast (Kin­n­ear and Con­nelly are es­pe­cially adept at sug­gest­ing depths of char­ac­ter not to be found in the screen­play), but to­wards the end the nar­ra­tive be­comes less con­vinc­ing. Per­haps Boone is try­ing a lit­tle too hard to make his char­ac­ters charm­ing and, as a re­sult, they emerge as rather one-di­men­sional. De­spite that, the film is filled with acute ob­ser­va­tion and is very well made on an ob­vi­ously limited bud­get. THE tal­ents pos­sessed by the young women in Har­mony Korine’s Spring Break­ers cer­tainly

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