dir: Robert Connolly
Of course Australia needs more Australian films that Australians want to watch. Australia Australia Australia we love you. We won’t have a sustainable film industry (with such a small population, with so much cultural cringe, with so much downloading possible) until we can make the big hits that support the other ‘quality’ productions that no-one other than a few hipsters, a bunch of confused pensioners on Cheap Mondays, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton want to see.
Paper Planes has been very successful. A caveat on that is that it’s been very successful for an Australian film. A decent outcome box office-wise for an Australian film would be the very definition of a disaster for most American flicks, but that’s a different argument.
And it deserves to be a success. It’s the very definition of a crowd-pleasing, mass audience family flick. It has the exact contours, rhythms and beats of an underdog triumph / sports movie (which is not a bad thing at all), and though it is constructed from bunches of clichés, the performances manage to wrest the material away from its more mawkish tendencies.
It’s also horribly, horribly emotionally manipulative. There are scenes so potent in their ability to wrest tears from the tear ducts of adults (as opposed to kids) that you feel like a fool crying over such clichés. But they work.
They don’t work because of the acting on display by Sam Worthingtion. Worthingtion remains an enigma to me, in that he continues to get work despite rarely if ever having acted convincingly in any film I’ve ever seen him in, this included. To call him wooden insults wood, which has a greater range and ability to emote than he does. Still, to be fair, it does make him oddly suited to playing the role of a severely depressed widower, so depressed that all he can do is watch cricket on the telly.
No, the star of the flick is a small, homely boy called Ed Oxenbould. That’s not his character’s name, that’s the actor’s name. I emphasise this because Ed Oxenbould is going to be an acting legend in this country (unless he grows up to be a drug addict who beats women up). Why is he going to be a great actor? Because he’s not going to go through that stage that other child actors do, of starting out supercute, super successful (a la Macauley Culkin in My Girl and Home Alone), and then becoming a pariah once puberty hits, rendering him some kind of hideous monster.
After that the only reason you get mentions in the papers is because of arrests, mug shots etc.
No, he’s going to blossom once he hits those ‘awkward’ years. I first saw him playing, of all things, a junior version of Russell Crowe on the wicked comedy series Soul Mates. A pair of Kiwi assassins are tasked with trying to force a young Russell Crowe to return to New Zealand, and they end up murdering his pet rabbit to make this happen. It does not have the desired effect, but it does set young Russell upon his violent, phone shattering path.
Everything this kid touches turns to gold. He strikes the perfect balance with this character, making us side with him against the forces aligned against him, but he also never oversells all the emotionally dense stuff they give him either.
It’s about a boy called Dylan (Oxenbould). In a country town. His mother died recently. His father (Worthington) can’t, won’t get off the couch. It’s over half the film later that they tell us that Dylan’s mum and Dad’s wife only died 5 months previous.
5 months? Isn’t it understandable that the poor guy is still shellshocked? Are there time limits to grieving these days? What’s considered to be the reasonable length of time to grieve for one’s partner after which you have to cheer up and forget the person you thought you’d share the rest of your life with ever existed? Days? Weeks?
At first I felt like the film, and Dylan, were being a bit unfair about his father’s depression, but it leads to a moment of such devastating grace on Dylan’s part that a) it earned the unfairness (built on clichés as it is) but b) it also made many of the adults in the audience I saw this with openly sob.
I’ve made this sound like it’s some dense, agonising family drama, whereas it’s really about cheese bagels and cats wearing bowties. No, I mean it’s about a kid getting inspired to make the best paper planes he can, and entering competitions, and learning stuff about himself and life and aerodynamics and love and but wait, there’s more!
Dylan’s school hosts a paper plane competition, this somehow leads to a state championship, then the nationals, and then the International Paper Plane Competition! Does it sound plausible? Hell if I know. This story is very, very loosely based on something that happened to a guy called Dylan once, but I’m not sure any of it really connects to history in any manner other than there was a guy called Dylan and he made really cool paper planes.
What matters to Dylan is that somehow all the strands of his life converge in his attempts to make the perfect plane. He recalls being shown how to make paper planes by his dearly departed mother (Nicole Trunfio). His pimp of a grandfather (Terry Norris) was a pilot in the war shooting down the Jerries, and he has stuff to contribute to Dylan’s understanding of flight. His teacher (Peter Rowsthorn) also, when asked for advice, tells him to figure it out himself. His dad, in the end, convinces him to find out everything he can about flight and apply it to his plane making, just before he gets trashed again (not shown, but it’s implied) and doesn’t get up from the couch for the next couple of days.
In a clever and historically accurate inclusion, Dad drags out his ancient VHS tapes, and plays footage of Australia II’s win in the America’s Cup, and uses Ben Lexcen’s design for the winged keel as a plot point, advising Dylan that he needs to find his own unique innovation in order to triumph. I thought that was quite a neat idea, truth be told.
Also, an antagonist – turned friend (Julian Dennison, who seems to have based his performance style on Rebel Wilson’s entire career) shows him by accident that radically rethinking the whole paper plane design thingy could be the key to victory.
Then there’s the Japanese champion Kimi (Ena Imai) who’s there to teach Dylan that excellence in paper planes will come from forgetting about winning and losing, and using the principles of nature and balance to come up with a truly beautiful design.
Then there’s golf superstar Diver Dan (David Wenham) who’s there to teach Dylan about winning not being the be all and end all, and forgiving his father for his shortcomings. Then there’s Diver Dan’s arsehole win-at-all-costs son Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke) who teaches Dylan…
Gosh darn it everyone has something to teach Dylan. Absolutely everyone. A bloody eagle flying in the sky possibly teaches him about aerodynamics and uplift and family and cryptic crossword puzzles and how to do a tax return. Random people on the street and people in passing cars (probably) start doling out advice as well. It’s enough to make you despair of humanity, it is.
Alternately, it’s enough to make you re-embrace humanity as well. Dylan’s a decent kid from the start, but even he can grow and mature and become a better person, mostly by realising what kind of person he doesn’t want to become. The scene where Dylan decides to tell his dad that instead of impatiently waiting for him to pull himself out of his depression, he’s going to stick by him for however long he needs, almost had me howling like a true helicopter parent / wolf howling at the full moon on a cold, wintery night. Ed Oxenbould never overplays these scenes, and it’s a credit to him and the director that they managed to get the right feel for it.
The tone is otherwise mostly light and bubbly, and jokey at some moments to the flick’s detriment. There is really not much reason for Deborah Mailman to be in this flick. Apart from literally jumping up and down with goofy, misplaced excitement, she fulfils a role almost anyone less qualified than her could have provided.
You can’t really think about the logistics (how does Dylan get to Sydney from what seems like it was WA?) of it either, nor should one really put too much thought into the idea that there are local, state, national and international paper plane competitions. There is an international competition, but it’s populated mostly by engineers and designers, not really junior high school kids.
Also, I find it a bit disingenuous for the flick to be going down the ‘it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s about how you play the game’ track, when it sets so much importance on whether Dylan wins or loses in the end. If it doesn’t matter whether he wins or loses, then why does it matter if he wins or loses? He is gently chided by Kimi for losing sight of what’s really important (beauty, originality) in the rush to win, and yet the ending seems to be completely random (in terms of what happens) and yet completely preordained in order to give the maximum amount of people the maximum amount of gratification (except for the transparent ‘villain’, who miraculously has a change of heart).
But that doesn’t matter. It might be meticulously crafted from an array of familiar clichés, and it may follow the sports triumph template so closely that even Sylvester Stallone might deserve some royalties for the use of the Rocky pro forma, but what matters is that I enjoyed it as I was watching it. The manipulative bits manipulated me so adeptly that I felt like I’d been mugged, but my daughter, who’s probably the main intended audience, loved the flick without twigging a thing about the emotional elements.
And as soon as we got home, the first and last thing she was doing all day, two days running, has been trying to make the perfect paper plane. They might have all been CGI planes, rather than paper in the movie, but it’s hard to argue with capturing the perfect moment, with something you’ve made with your own two hands, flying further and straighter than you ever thought possible.
8 times constructing the perfect paper plane must be a beautiful and pointless experience out of 10
"Wouldn't it be great if it were about more than whose plane flies the furthest – if it were about making something beautiful or surprising?"- yeah, that’d be a thing, wouldn’t it – Paper Planes