A competent but frustratingly conventional slice-of-life drama, Serhat Caradee’s Cedar Boys tries hard to be all things for all audience members but just falls short. A solid, photogenic lead performance by Les Chantery and name players Rachael Taylor and Martin Henderson will help get the film some much-needed mainstream press coverage, but the truly groundbreaking cinematic expose of life as a Middle Eastern youth in Sydney’s West continues to elude the local industry.
David Field’s tougher and equally-accomplished The Combination trod similar ground in early 2009. Both feature familial conflicts, run-ins with authority and grand but misguided schemes, and both suffer from trying to incorporate the truths about life as a young ethnic man with the conventions of an against-all-odds melodrama.
Chantery plays Tarek, a young man with ambition and solid sense of responsibility. He is determined to earn enough legitimate cash to open his own workshop and to fund the appeal that will get his older brother Jamal (Bren Foster, channelling Colin Farrell) out of lock-up. In a moment that will change his life forever, he agrees to act as lookout when his friend Nabil (Buddy Dannoun) rips off the lair of drug distributor, Simon (Jake Wall).
The payoff is enormous and the benefits immediate – wads of cash, a shallow, manipulative Eastern Suburbs Aussie girlfriend (in the comely shape of Rachael Taylor) and wild times all fall in the boy’s laps. Along with their unpredictably explosive petty crim mate Sam (the superb Waddah Sari), they begin to dominate the local pill-distribution networks – so much so that the community’s drug lords (the pills' rightful owners) soon take notice. Thugs Mathew (Henderson) and Cassar (Two Fists One Heart’s Daniel Amalm) confront the lads, with devastating consequences.
Cedar Boys goes to great lengths to capture the daily lives of the disenfranchised young men of Sydney's South-west. Cliched images reinforce the greater population’s one-dimensional view of the city’s ethnic enclaves – doof-doof speakers in customised cars; racial tensions amongst Asian, Australian and Middle Eastern youths; the fascination with American gun culture and violent iconography. Acknowledgement of such ingrained imagery will certainly resonate with the film's core audience, but it may serve to limit its wider appeal. It will be a tricky marketing task to entice the larger movie-going demographic, who would benefit most from the film's insights.
As with The Combination, Cedar Boys’ impact is lessened by the demands it places upon the audience to delineate between what is flavour and what is feeling; when are its characters real and when are they posturing? Only Chantery’s Tarek offers more than caricature in this regard and he shares some wonderfully moving scenes with Foster through the visitor centre’s glass. Caradee finds some real traction as a filmmaker in the prison scenes, especially in Jamal’s final confrontation with Simon; he seems less assured in the scenes between Taylor and Chantery, casting her as singularly bad and denying him a stronger male voice, and thereby adding shade to Tarek’s plight.
There is no denying the passion and commitment that Serhat Caradee and his cast have brought to Cedar Boys, and it is certainly an admirable film in its intent to portray the trials of growing up as an underdog. But its undoing is its reliance on familiar cliché and unfocussed characterisations; a cautionary tale well told can be compelling, but Boyz In The Hood proved that back in 1991.