Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Movie Review: Swinging Safari (2018)



The plot: In 1970’s Australia, on a beach-side cul-de-sac, a 200-ton whale has beached itself. As budding filmmaker Jeff (Atticus Robb) and his young friends marvel at what has just happened, their parents begin to make their own lives even more complicated by engaging in a swinger’s party. While Jeff keeps himself occupied with his home movies and trying to keep on the right side of the adults in the neighbourhood, he is forced to learn certain lessons about his home, his culture, his sexuality and his place in the world.

Atticus Robb as the main kid works very well with his “clearly written by an adult” dialogue. Darcey Wilson as his sort-of love interest handles a lot of quiet dread with astounding efficacy. Jeremy Sims is very good as the adult voice of reason, ditto for Asher Keddie as his wife. Guy Pearce has a lot of fun on-screen as the rather openly lecherous dad, with Kylie Minogue rounding him off as the sloshed and simmering housewife. Julian McMahon (yeah, easy forget that this guy is an Aussie, even for us) brings a lot of winking smarm to the table, with Radha Mitchell playing his wife handling her place as the main swinger of the group rest easily on her shoulders. Jack Thompson as the Mayor brings some for-the-cameras charm to his scenes, Chelsea Glaw as the “active” teenager handles her rather prominent sexuality with ease, managing to outdo even the grown-ups at their own game, and Richard Roxburgh as the narrator brings a lot of retrospective warmth to the overall production.

This film operates squarely between retro cringe and cultural cringe. Retro cringe comes courtesy of the 70’s period setting, with all the ugly fashion and overblown facial hair that comes with it. Hounds Of Love used this same sense of kitsch to establish setting, whereas this saturates itself in it to rather garish and humourous effect. The cultural cringe comes out the focus on suburban Australia, particularly the rather erroneous “Aussie upper-middle class”, parading around their own self-supposed sophistication to make the eventual downfall of the adult friendships feel like an inevitability.

And then there’s the children, who exist in a coming-of-age story seemingly disconnected to the suburban mayhem going on around them. As much as Jeff’s ambitions of a filmmaker could have easily come across as somewhat pretentious, bear in mind that this is coming from the same director as The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert; the man has earned a bit of self-reflection, especially when dealing in a film with a certain amount of autobiography between the lines. It operates under the usual tone for coming-of-age stories, particularly the lingering fear that the rampantly irrational actions of their parents is a blueprint for their own future. This is balanced out by Jeff’s filmmaking antics, which show a free-spiritedness and sense of liberation that makes the final words of the production, ones that show a remarkable lack of direct attack towards the mindset of the era, sit a bit easier. That, and it shows a frequent willingness for the children on-screen to embrace total anarchy, something that their parents are all too eager to ignore. Even today, this applies to the mindset of middle-class Australiana in rather embarrassing ways.

Considering the aforementioned connection to Priscilla, the crown jewel in our cinematic Mardi Gras tiara, the way this film looks at notions of sexuality is at once expected and rather nuanced. It shows a certain all-or-nothing approach to sex education for the younger characters, an approach that is only growing in antiquity thanks to last year’s heavy sigh of relief as far as legalizing same-sex marriage, but also enough salience to show group sex, the titular Swinging Safari, as something that very easily can go awry. These two aspects combined give a depiction of the cultural approach to sex as being something definitely influenced by the liberated air of the time but also something that we haven’t really gotten much further than. A telling example of this is how, when two of the kids show interest in each other, their parents show relief that their kids aren’t gay. I saw enough nonsense over the last few months to prove that that is a fairly familiar idea, even today. Of course, hard to take that kind of sexual prejudice seriously when, as the escapades between the adults reaches a boiling point, we see them as being just as confused and looking for closure as their children. They’re doing the best they can with the bent tools they’ve been given, as the narrator aptly puts it, and everyone in that cul-de-sac is following suit.

All in all, a decent slice of quirky Aussie cinema, with a solid cast, beautifully sun-kissed cinematography and a script that is equally willing to submerge itself in Kitsch Triumphant as it is to look at just how much the soul of the age was eating away at people. Knowing how much self-aware cringe plays into the Australian cultural identity, this brand of coming-of-age story holds true to that legacy by showing a certain knowing laugh at its own contents, but not to the point where it gets mean-spirited or self-loathing. Oh, and bonus points for being one of the goriest non-horror films I’ve sat through.

It ranks higher than Maze Runner: The Death Cure, as this film’s success doesn’t bank on closing the book on a larger series or even an entire subset of the Hollywood schedule. Swinging Safari works because it taps into something very insular and very recognizable, whether it be from temporal proximity or just geographical proximity, and it nails every weird-ass tonal shift it aims for. As someone who takes tonal consistency rather seriously, it takes a lot to get these kinds of change-ups past me. However, as good as this is as a piece of Australiana, it doesn’t measure up to the sheer dexterity of Molly’s Game as far as dialogue and even acting. I’m still shocked that that film got the performances it did out of the people involved.

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