A couple of Australians (Andrew Ryan, Tim Phillipps) introduce a group of American backpackers (Jessica Tovey, Pippa Black, Tim Pocock) to the local legend of Lemon Tree Passage where the ghost of a motorcyclist warns young drivers to slow down. After seeing the ghost first hand, they uncover a malevolent force that possesses the area and threatens to wreak havoc on the final days of their vacation. Isolated and ten thousand miles away from home, the tourists find themselves caught in the clutches of an evil force that's much more heinous than the local myth.
Australian film Lemon Tree Passage premiered at South Korea’s primary genre festival PiFan (Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival). A festival that highlights some of the most warped films from around the world, PiFan often prizes the shock of the new over narrative lucidity. But it’s not a good sign when during the Q&A, the director starts to explain everything that didn’t make sense in his film… and it still doesn’t makes sense. But Lemon Tree Passage does have verve, a strong performance by Jessica Tovey, and a handful of startling sequences (one involving a rear-view mirror stands out). Unfortunately, those compelling incidents fail to thread together in any sense that satisfies dramatically.
The film has a couple of false starts. First, an apparently authentic YouTube clip (discovered during post-production) that centres on a modern myth about teenagers driving past a certain speed to cause a ghost to appear. Lemon Tree Passage uses this story as its point of departure as its five protagonists, two Australian mates and some American backpackers (two female and one male, a brother to one of the women) do exactly the same thing. Between the clip and the meeting of the American backpackers and the locals, there is the second false start that seems completely disconnected from what becomes before an after: a brutish man, Sam (Nicholas Gunn), rifles through his garage, loads his pistol and attempts to shoot himself only to find his bullets are missing.
After introducing the backpackers to the spectre-raising ritual, obnoxious Oscar (Andrew Ryan) and the shyly charming Geordie (Tim Phillipps) take the American trio back to their house. (How do teens afford to live in luxury without any means of support?) Oscar has ham-fisted designs on Amelia (Pippa Black), but there is a more genuine attraction between Geordie and Maya (Jessica Tovey). Still – even with the consent of her friend and her friend’s brother, Toby (Tim Pocock) – the romantic union between Geordie and Maya remains obstructed as a genre-induced manifestation of coitus interruptus. Amongst the obstacles to this teen passion are the revelation that the aforementioned bullet-less Sam is Oscar and Geordie’s housemate; Maya starts to suffer from nightmares; and a second attempt to stir up the ghost leads to a perplexing death. From then on, characters race around bushland in the darkness, bodies begin to appear and disappear (just like logic), and the sound design tries to compensate for a lack of genuine thrills.
The actors run the gamut from under-trained to overplaying and largely look unconvinced by the movie themselves. Several times, Phillipps and Black seem unable to reconcile the words they have to say, with the emotions they are called upon to emit. This is where Jessica Tovey stands out.
Walter Huston once said, “I ain’t paid to make good lines sound good. I’m paid to make bad lines sound good.” Regardless of the flaws of the script and the flummoxed look of her co-stars, Tovey is always believable as she carries Lemon Tree Passage past most of its more ridiculous moments. Directorially, Campbell pulls his weight. The film has a stylish look and competently portrays the action. But for his next venture Campbell and co-writer Erica Brien (who also acted as the film’s production designer) need to figure out how to prevent their story from pulling in too many directions at once.
Like the legendary first novel Ernest Hemingway allegedly tore up and tossed into the sea and the first film that Quentin Tarantino claims he was advised never to show anyone, Lemon Tree Passage might be a vital steppingstone for its debuting director. But an unheralded masterpiece this is not. Which maybe why this Australian film hasn’t secured a local release yet.