Little Fish

Little Fish

These drugs turned out nowhere near as fun as the film claimed

dir: Rowan Woods

Each year they keep talking about the film that’s going to launch the renaissance of Australian cinema, and each year the call goes ignored and unlamented by Australian audiences.

It’s the unpopular kid at school who throws a big birthday on the Saturday afternoon, with the best party pies and those frankfurters on tooth picks, but no-one comes. The kid is left there crying, heart-broken, vowing to join the Liberal party at the soonest opportunity in order to exact revenge upon the world.

This is the latest flick to get touted as the be-all and end-all. And the call is still going to go unheeded. It’s a decent flick all the same.

It’s too downbeat. It’s too angular and deliberately unsatisfying, and incongruous. In fact, you’d wonder who thought this was really going to have any mass appeal. Sure, I saw it in a totally packed cinema, but that was on a Monday afternoon. Monday afternoons at the Nova mean you get to see any flick for 5 bucks. Every old person and their maiden aunt descends upon the Nova from every corner of the inner city, to the almost musical accompaniment of their creaking walking frames.

It will still get the lion’s share of the critical plaudits, at least, even if it doesn’t achieve box office magic. With the AFI awards becoming one-horse races, this will probably win everything next year from Best Film to Nicest Boots.

Though there might be a bit more competition than last year when Somersault won absolutely everything. The Oyster Farmer, Look Both Ways and the interesting looking film about to debut written by Nick Cave called The Proposition are getting PR flacks and critics in a tizzy, even if the public has collectively shrugged its shoulders, farted, and gone back to sleep.

Little Fish is a modest film, in scale and temperament, which is trying to achieve little more than convince you that the story of this small group of people is human, messy and worthy of your time and notice.

Rowan Woods scarred his way onto people’s consciousnesses with the brilliant and loathsome The Boys, which took a premise, created an oppressive atmosphere and turned the screws on it until the characters and the audience snapped. Here the atmosphere is slightly less oppressive, and the characters have more room to breath and travel about, but they are just trapped.

Trace Heart (Blanchett) is a hard working slapper who’s managed the heroic feat of kicking her heroin habit, and is trying to make a better life for herself. Everyone wants a better life. Even ex-junkies working in Vietnamese video stores in Cabramatta. So shouldn’t she be entitled to some grace, since she’s cleaned her life up and is trying to do the right thing?

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with this crazy place I call “The World” knows nothing is that simple. Life can be hard enough for those of us who never lived a life of crime, gotten addicted to anything or sucked cock for money. As the film world teaches us constantly, except in the case of Pretty Woman, people, especially women with that in their past, are marked for life, and the world can see it ever more.

Of course it’s not true, but movies, even those with the best of intentions, perpetuate this moralistic claptrap ad infinitum.

When a film is about a drug addict, it’s about them getting off of whatever substance gets them off. When a film is about a recovering addict, the crux of the film rests on whether that person is tempted or forced by dint of circumstance into getting back on the stuff. Little Fish is no different, but at least looks at a bigger picture than that. It is not a film about addiction or about drugs, though both elements play a part.

Trace has supportive family and friends, but the harder she tries to work something out in the legitimate world of internet cafes and Oriental VCD rentals, the more the world aligns itself as if to say “you don’t have a chance, you overrated actress, you”.

On top of that she babysits an old family friend who is in the throes of extreme smack addiction. Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving, more handsome than ever) is a former Rugby superstar, whose days of glory are spent shooting up in a flat surrounded by an ever decreasing amount of memorabilia. He is also the person who introduced Trace to the sweet life of addiction, thus is doubly hated by Trace’s mother (Noni Hazelhurst), and ambiguously loved by Trace and her brother Ray (Martin Hendersen).

His screaming need at a time where things go badly for Trace is meant to signify that whenever you think you’ve hit rock-bottom, there’s always further to go.

Just to add more flavour to the mix, an old flame of hers comes back to town, Jonny, (Dustin Nguyen), who brings with him the temptations of the past, and the hope that there is a better way out of it.

If the name Dustin Nguyen looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he used to co-star with Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street. I’m not kidding, it’s the same guy. How he ended up in an Australian film as the love interest must be an amazing story, or else he is just desperate for any work. As with Depp, he seems not to have aged much in two decades. The picture of Dorian Gray that Johnny Depp seems to have bootlegged must have a picture of Dustin on the back.

Seeing him is weird, and his accent is weird too, but he, like everyone else in the film, does a wonderful job. Here’s hoping he gets more work in quality Australian fare. Anyone but Geoffrey Rush, I beg you.
The script is gritty, perhaps overly so, trying to make their world seem believable. It avoids many clichés whilst embracing a few others. As a novel approach, it’s the only Australian film I can think of which combines these particular elements with a Sydney-specific, Australian-Vietnamese milieu. The depiction of the drug trade is unglamorous and pretty accurate, without going over the top.

The film meanders along, full of despair, black humour, with a hunger for lost innocence, meaning, and some ill-muttered poetic lines, towards an ending you couldn’t see coming from the start. A lot of contrivances are required to bring the film to that conclusion, and I think the story suffers a tiny bit from the plot, but not overly so. Where the characters end up is where they’re supposed to be, I guess.

I could have done without the foreshadowing, on the other hand. The second you see a person read the last will and testament of another person, that person might as well have a neon sign on their forehead saying “I am not long for this world”. You’re counting the seconds.

The solid acting work, the extremely competent direction, the pervasive feeling of loss and the manner in which what could have been cynical and treacly (the use of a children’s choir singing the Cold Chisel song Flame Trees) is turned into something moving, renders this a decent flick not for the whole family.

Little Fish isn’t about crime and drugs. It’s about choices, the devastating choices we make or don’t make that define the rest of our lives, and whether we can earn enough grace afterwards to be forgiven for them, or forgive ourselves.

8 ways in which the symbolism of the little fish is bandied about in Little Fish when it only needed to be there twice out of 10

“I fall with you” – Trace, Little Fish