Blessed film review: disjointed and disaffected down-n-out drama
Director Ana Kokkinos charters 24 calamitous hours in the lives of a collective of disaffected youth and their disaffected families in Blessed, a heavy duty high-falutin’ character drama that seems to be built on proffering one timeless adage: it ain’t easy being a kid and it ain’t easy being a parent. The title refers to children – specifically that they are a parent’s blessing, or simply that family matters mmkay? – but there is next to nix here that is cheerful or uplifting and certainly no Kodak moments – unless we’re talking one twisted Kafkaesque photo album – in this emotionally draining story in which everyone, child and adult, has a cross to bear and everyone appears to be fighting a losing battle. The film begins by following the antiestablishment exploits of bored and troublesome yoof and at about the half way mark chronologically resets the story to show the same day from the perspective of their mothers. It’s a storytelling gimmick but a good one; between the lines Kokkinos hammers home the point that understanding comes largely from perspective and that this kind of perspective is almost always unattainable in real life – but the cinema is blessed by no such boundaries and Kokkinos toils away at the premise, working it to memorable effect.
The first half of the story cuts between seven kids/parental nightmares who drink, swear, wag school, steal, run away from home, star in amateur porn films and generally avoid homework, sport and three square meals a day – in other words my kinda crowd. Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) are wily bad-ass girls who get caught shoplifting then give the cops shtick; Roo (Eamon Farren) has run away from home and participates in an ewww amateur vid; Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) steals from an old lady and is inexplicably reciprocated with kindness and a copy of The Grapes of Wrath; brother and sister Orton (Reef Ireland) and Stacey (Eva Lazzaro) are rebelling from their down-n-out mum and living on the streets.
In the second half we meet the mothers and their stories aren’t any prettier, so if you’re after a cinematic pick-me-up best to point your nostrils in the direction of more spritely filmic warez – Charles and Boots perhaps, sticking with the Australian theme – as Blessed is a bit of a downer, the very kind of film, for better or worse, that The Age production editor Michael Coulbert recently (and somewhat unfairly) chastised the Australian film industry for creating. It’s tough, uncompromising and heavyhearted but there is also quite a lot – not all of which is entrenched in gloom and despair – to keep audiences intrigued. Kokkinos’s direction feels at times nearly as disjointed as the narrative, which reflects the format of Blessed, a film of situations and sporadic encounters that hang together in the memory as a tapestry of random events rather than a fully cohesive package.
The film’s mingling of grungy street curb realism with sparks of theatrics and contrived drama is interesting but uneasy, and on occasions when the characters talk at length Kokkinos’s grasp of reality loosens. The story is littered with peculiar moments that stretch plausibility a little thinly – there is one scene, for example, during which William McInnes’s character dishes out hundreds of dollars to a stranger for no particular reason, and this sort of vaguely inexplicable behaviour permeates throughout the story, the characters’ actions tinkering close to downright randomness, and the challenge is extended to thinking audiences: why are these people acting in these ways? Kokkinos asks the questions and you, the viewer – yes you, wise guy, so shaddap and start thinkin or bugger off and see Transformers – must either shrug your shoulders or scratch your noodle for some answers.
Some lighter tangents might have helped the story seem just a little more plausible, as elements of the plot are almost reality-breaking despairing. Logically thinking audiences may find it’s difficult to accept, for example, that in one day so many six-degrees-connected people are having such a terrible time – bad sex, violence, theft, death etc. – short of something funny being in the water but hey, this is the movies, and Kokkinos is able to conjure a power and intensity that creeps up on you, dissipates and comes back again, at times smack bang in the centre of the frame and others bobbing elusively somewhere not too far away, between shots. When the film is performing at its peak it’s truly arresting viewing, capable of sending little shivers down your spine, and when it’s under-performing it’s a little too contrived, the dramatics a shade forced.
There are some strong performances: Sophie Lowe, the pretty opal-eyed star of Beautiful Kate, is a real find and a face to watch – her tone, intonation, body language and manifestation of emotions in both films has been just about right-on. Miranda Otto is strong as her pokies addicted mother and Frances O’Connor captures with ferocity some of the script’s more searing emotions. I like Blessed’s strange and elusive energy, and its largely unlikeable cast of characters linger vividly in the memory, not as people I feel compelled to visit again but as tangible and at times frighteningly real creations. Blessed changes emotional chords quickly and must have been a bugger to direct, the high velocity performances and scattered sequencing a tough sell. Kokkinos jerks the audience to and fro and a sense of disconnect is inevitable; like a series of dreams, some moments resonate a lot more than others. The complete package is, at the very least, compelling.
Blessed’s Australian theatrical release: September 10, 2009.