For a wallflower, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) gets a lot attention on her first day of school.
The 14-year-old is aggressively befriended by Elliot (Harrison Feldman) – a highly-excitable and unpopular kid in her class – before being selected to join the ranks of a predatory clique of popular girls, led by Jade (Maiah Stewardson). But it is when Greta’s parents (Matthew Whittet and Amber McMahon) host a birthday party for her, inviting along all her classmates, that Greta is forced to confront the nature of her relationships with both her peers and her family, and decide the sort of person she wants to mature into.
Director Rosemary Myers brings a pitch-perfect sense of heightened reality to this coming-of-age drama. Her attention to detail, and the care she takes in framing a scene, put her in the same conversation as Wes Anderson. But unlike Anderson, Myers is fascinated by the pedestrian and the mundane, and she channels that fascination towards some understated and inspired directorial choices. A particular delight was a dinner-table scene in which the family sit down to eat 'Chinese', where the blatant in-authenticity of the cuisine is used to make light of '70s Australian culture. It’s profoundly funny, and only one of many absurdist jokes in the film.
The lead performances are all exceptional, but Harrison Feldman deserves particular credit. He is instrumental to film’s opening scene, both finding the right tone for his character while also grounding the film in its peculiar sensibilities. If his performance had been just slightly off-key, it might have taken the audience a little bit longer to warm to the film’s sense of humour – that he nails it is testament to his substantial comedic talents.
If it is Feldman who gets the film underway, though, it is Bethany Whitmore who holds it together. She is able to believably portray Greta’s transition from childhood into adolescence, and hit all the emotional beats the script requires of her, delivering a strong performance all the way through.
The title of the film alludes to an extended dream sequence which occupies most of the third act – a tense, beautiful and meditative exploration of Greta’s emotional state. Unfortunately, this sequence doesn’t quite sit well with the hyper-realism that is used elsewhere. In the waking reality of 'Girl Asleep' its characters are exaggerated to the point of caricature. Greta’s dad, for example, is not just a dad, but a collection of dad stereotypes – the literal manifestation of dad-jokes, domestic helplessness, over-protectiveness and walking fashion-disaster. But the approach works because although the actions of these characters are overblown, we get the sense that at their core beats the heart of a fully-realised individual. Through the dream sequences, though, the exaggerated suddenly becomes the allegorical – either approach would have made for an effective choice, but having both just feels cluttered.
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of any resolution in this sequence. There is a squirm-inducing bedroom scene which straddles the line between desire and coercion, and forces the audience to confront the dark undercurrent of sexuality that exists in adolescence. But the film cuts away before the action can play out, not allowing Greta the opportunity to act. This is followed by a poorly-choreographed fight scene, where Greta seems to prevail against her attackers not because she can land a punch but because the narrative requires her to win. In both cases, the film doesn’t allow Greta to persevere, and so it never feels like she was in danger in the first place. As such, the whole dream sequence feels inconsequential and unnecessary to the drama.
Ultimately, 'Girl Asleep' takes this incongruity in its stride, and builds towards a conclusion that is both satisfying and endearing. Any missteps in the narrative are overshadowed by a tight script, glorious costume design, and a vibrant aesthetic. This is undoubtedly the most complex and original comedy I’ve seen this year – an explosive film-directorial debut for Myers, and a brilliant showcase for its talented cast.