Girl Asleep is a perplexing, endearing and thoroughly enjoyable film. What starts out looking like a cut-rate Wes Anderson homage winds up somewhere completely unexpected and utterly unique, and I can honestly say that it pulls off what could have been a pretty standard pubescent initiation story with more sensitivity and wit than anything I’ve seen in quite some time. As a film it’s far from flawless, but as a psychological study of nascent adolescence its honesty and insight are a refreshing respite from the endless sea of predominantly pointless and self-consciously quirky teen melodramas that seem to pop up incessantly in modern movie theaters. Adapted from their own award-winning Australian stage play by writer Matthew Whittet and director Rosemary Myers, the duo deliver an extremely promising cinematic debut that puts its dry humor and singular sensibility to profoundly affective use.
The initial narrative seems straightforward enough; new-to-town Greta (played with surprising maturity by Bethany Whitmore) navigates the vicissitudes of social and family life on the eve or her fifteenth birthday. But things take a sharp turn into surrealist symbolism about halfway through the film, when an unwanted birthday bash drives our young heroine deep into her internal landscape as she’s confronted by a series of Campbellian threshold guardians in a woodland setting deeply indebted to psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. These sequences dealing with our protagonist’s subjective experience of her unconscious mindscape are easily the most interesting aspects of the film, and left me wishing that the filmmakers had dispensed with the unduly referential stylistic nods and gotten to the good stuff much sooner.
And the good stuff abounds, largely resulting from Whittet’s enjoyably off kilter script. At its core, Girl Asleep is a film about the steep learning curve necessitated by burgeoning relationships, and the film hits its strongest emotional beats when focusing on how Greta’s interactions with others affect her on a psychological level. The masterful accomplishment of this film is its ability to skirt sentiment without digressing into saccharinity, a particularly impressive feat considering the subject matter. Whittet reprises his stage role as Greta’s dad, and the moments of juvenile humor he shares with Whitmore are some of the funniest and most moving exchanges in the movie without the treacle such onscreen pairings usually imply. The process of adaptation between the stage and screen seems to have left the film with some significant structural issues, but by the time it abandons its more conventional plot mechanics these problems seem almost like they might have come from a different film.
Director Rosemary Myers clearly has a keen eye, composing artfully in a 4:3 Academy ratio particularly well suited to her visual subject. The film’s period late-70s production design feels appropriately dated and yet strangely timeless, and Myers’ camera movements are stylish without being obtrusive. My single biggest gripe with her sensibility is her aforementioned tendency to reference her coming-of-age genre influences, with visual cues calling to mind everything from Rushmore to Napoleon Dynamite to Dazed and Confused with a dash of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House thrown in for good measure; fortunately this abates as the narrative shifts the setting into the mythical forest, and I suspect that Myers will establish her own distinctive aesthetic more solidly as she matures as filmmaker.
Ultimately, my minor gripes with this film are far outweighed by its strengths, and I expect great things from both Myers and Whittet in years to come. If you’re in the market for an uplifting and genuinely fun film that deals with a subject as complex as a girl’s transition into adulthood while still respecting its audience’s intelligence, look no further than Girl Asleep. It may not be a perfect film, but it is a pretty great one for audiences of all ages, and I highly doubt that even the most cynical and disaffected teen will manage to sleep through it. Not Rated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse