Every year it arrives. It generates incandescent rage from a clique of Seen It Before critics, a fog of apathy from general punters and a collective, sad sigh from most who cross its path or hear vague stories about its awfulness.
It is the film that epitomises in one fell swoop why much of the Australian public perceive the need to stay the hell away from locally produced films, as if the cinemas housing them were cesspits for brain-munching zombies with flesh-marked floors and blood-stained pictures of Richard Wilkins and Yahoo Serious on their fist-battered walls. It’s the numero uno benchmark for what not to do. The anti-playbook. The film that makes the our industry look like a jape, a gag, a punch-line, a put-on.
Welcome, Surviving Georgia, to Australian cinemas.
To put this achingly bad Aussie melodrama in context, imagine if a flunky Mills and Boon novelist with an intellectual disability was forced by gun point to adapt a Get Well Hallmark card into a feature length screenplay. The resulting sweat-n-snot stained pages would likely resemble something along the lines of the rinkydink latest offering from Sandra Sciberras, who fared much, much better as the writer/director of the curious but patchy 2006 drama Caterpillar Wish.
Surviving Georgia swims the uncharted (ahem) territory of water under the bridge between a mother and two estranged daughters.
Heidi (Pia Miranda) and Rose (Holly Valance) were abandoned as children by hedonistic alcho Georgia (Caroline O’Connor), so they are naturally apprehensive when they receive a letter from her in their 20-somethings. The letter asks them to meet at a hotel. They arrive to find a sad-eyed man who informs them that mum had cancer, has passed away, and left them an inheritance: a milk bar in a small Victorian town which Georgia won from gambling. There’s a catch: they need to live in the town, which they grew up in, for six months before the shop becomes theirs.
So far so loopy, but the say wha? stretches of storytelling logic have barely begun. Turns out mum is not dead; she wants the girls around to reconnect. Instead Rose becomes romantically entangled with an old friend, Johnnie (Shane “Kenny” Jacobson), now the town cop. If you thought the pairing of Valance and Jacobson as potential lovers was a bit much, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
Sciberras and co-director Kate Whitehead stack the film with a Babel tower high pancake of tissue box clichés: there are unopened letters, a cheesy voiceover, a wedding scene, a quasi-suicide attempt, a hospital operation and so on and so forth.
A character is informed by a doctor that she has a hole (literally) in her heart. If that didn’t already suggest an over-egged pudding was baking in the oven, Sciberras has the temerity to feed her the following line of dialogue – “they fixed my broken heart” – before the girl embraces the man who’s been shamelessly chasing her. It’s hell-tough for any actor to pull a line like that off without inducing cringes from the audience.
None of Surviving Georgia’s performances are very good (signing the always affable Jacobson was, however, something of a coup, and he radiates an earthy charm) but with full dairy dialogue and groggily constructed interpersonal relationships the actors sure had an uphill climb. The crucial character of Georgia remains an uninteresting enigma, a chalk outline on the ground, while the others float about attempting to wipe away the stains of pie-in-the-face melodrama. The film needed a good script editor. A really, really good one.
Sciberras and Whitehead’s direction inflicts rapid tonal shifts, not just between scenes but during, in an attempt to off-set Surviving Georgia’s creamy morbidity with humour. It works to some extent: audiences will occasionally laugh, but often for the wrong reasons.
A Q & A session after an early screening of the film revealed the character of Georgia was originally a dribbling invalid in a wheelchair, as if the film’s pancake of platitudes wasn’t already stacked high enough. Partial credit for ambition but — as the Bard once opined — “by that sin fell the angels.”
There is a warm, organic glow to the Victorian countryside backgrounds, a quiet reprieve best appreciated when the characters don’t talk. Plus, the film is decently framed and shot. But Surviving Georgia is bad daytime TV writ large – physically large, to fit on a cinema screen. It makes a show like Home and Away look like a work of genius and is best appreciated as a kind of experiment in how one reacts to unintentional tragedy and unintentional hilarity, like watching a clown in an oil-slathered alleyway decorated with pictures from Play School getting bludgeoned to death while the killer repeatly slips over and gets up again. If there’s an irony, it’s unintentional.
At the end of the Q & A, the instantly endearing Jacobson joked: “if you liked the film, tell all your friends. And if you didn’t, shut the hell up!”
No deal, Kenny. This film emits a smell that could outlast religion.
Surviving Georgia’s Australian theatrical release date: October 13, 2011.