The world is closing in on Greta Driscoll. On the cusp of turning fifteen she can't bear to leave her childhood, it contains all the things that give her comfort in this incomprehensible new world. She floats in a bubble of loserdom with her only friend Elliott, until her parents throw her a surprise 15th birthday party and she's flung into a parallel place; a world that's weirdly erotic, a little bit violent and thoroughly ludicrous - only there can she find herself.
On paper, Girl Asleep sounds like a derivative disaster – a quirky Australian coming-of-age tale with a kitsch 1970s aesthetic. But the story and characters are so charming and funny, and the stylistic excesses handled with such aplomb, that this film (directed by theatre-maker Rosemary Myers in her feature film debut) is a fresh-faced delight with all the makings of a local crowd-pleaser.
On the verge of her 15th birthday, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore, like an expressive and wide-eyed silent movie heroine) moves to a new house in the suburbs on the edge of a forest. The house is a 1970’s showpiece full of exposed stonework, mustard-toned furnishings and timber trims. It’s all very exciting for Greta’s fashion-conscious mum (Amber McMahon, hilariously brittle and intense) and daggy-cool dad (Matthew Whittet, who also wrote the screenplay). But Greta and her sullen older sister, Genevieve (Imogen Archer) are preoccupied with the terrors of a new school.
Shy and freckled, in garish red and yellow uniform, Greta sits alone at recess until she’s befriended by nerdy school outcast, Elliott (Harrison Feldman from Upper Middle Bogan). With shorts hiked high above his waist, a frizz of red hair and nasal deadpan delivery, he’s reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite – or any number of teenage misfits from Wes Anderson films. His proposal is practical: Greta has no friends. He has no friends. Why don’t they become friends? The school’s resident mean girls have a different plan. A set of harpy triplets (like an hallucination, two of them, played by Grace and Fiona Dawson, are identical while the third, played by Maiah Stewardson, is a blurred and slightly smaller replica) they want to adopt Greta as their pet to torture and coddle, forbidding her friendship with Elliott.
This social landmine explodes when Greta’s parents insist on throwing her a birthday party and inviting the entire class. Initially it’s a blast – complete with disco soundtrack and some gorgeously choreographed dance numbers – but when the triplets arrive, things turn nasty. Humiliated, Greta retreats to her bedroom, falling asleep down a rabbit-hole into a forest populated by wild and scary puppet-like creatures. She must retrieve a stolen object – her childhood musical jewel-box – and, in the process, fight demons and monsters, aided only by the warrior-like Huldra (Tilda Cobham-Hervey from 52 Tuesdays and Barracuda). This culminates in an hilarious martial arts showdown with the triplets (accompanied by The Angels ‘Take a long line’ on the soundtrack) and a tear-jerkingly tender encounter that will make any viewer mourn for their lost childhood.
This highly theatrical fantasy sequence requires the audience to submit to its dream logic, and for the most part this works, given the hyper-real everyday world already created. Myers cites Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry among her influences, and they’re very visible in these scenes, aided by inventive production design from Jonathan Oxlade and precise, witty framing by DoP Andrew Commis (The Rocket, The Daughter) who shoots with the boxy 4:3 aspect ration reminiscent of an old TV screen.
"This is a story that’s warm, wise and wonderfully told, the kind of visually rich and emotionally pleasurable experience that recalls iconic Australian films like Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding."
Girl Asleep began its life as a stage play, also written by Matthew Wittet and directed by Myers, aimed at adolescent audiences for Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre. Adapted to screen by its originators, the work now bears the marks of continual polishing and refining – escaping a familiar criticism of underworked scripting in Australian films. Instead, this is a story that’s warm, wise and wonderfully told, the kind of visually rich and emotionally pleasurable experience that recalls iconic Australian films like Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding, while being very much its own creation. It’s a coming-of-age tale that should cross over to please both youthful and not-so-young audiences.
Accolades so far include the audience award for most popular film at the 2015 Adelaide Film Festival (where Girl Asleep premiered), and a nomination for the Crystal Bear in the Generation 14plus program at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival. Most recently, the film won The Age Critics prize for best Australian film at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.
Watch the trailer: