Lou tells a tender story about the relationship between 11-year-old Lou (Lily Bell-Tindley) and her grandfather (John Hurt). Not long after Lou’s father walks out of her life, her irascible and befuddled grandfather crashes in. But when Doyle comes to stay, Lou discovers, against all her expectations, the healing power of love.
This drama about the strange relationship between a young girl living in sugar cane country and her Alzheimers-afflicted grandfather is a small gem that has the disadvantage of falling into an over-familiar genre, the Australian coming of age story.
Sensitively directed by Belinda Chayko (City Loop), it features a mesmerising lead performance by child actor Lily Bell-Tindley (who I’m sure we are going to be seeing more of), backed by a strong supporting cast. Meanwhile Hugh Miller’s gorgeous cinematography evokes a keen sense of place – the sugar cane country on the NSW-Queensland border. Not only is the film a visual treat but the family relationships at its core ring absolutely true.
How much emphasis individual viewers places on the 'small' and how much on the 'gem' may depend on how much tolerance they have for it being yet another local film about a young person trying to overcome their problems (viz. September; Romulus My Father; Somersault; and Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, among others) and how much lee-way they’re prepared to give its essentially understated approach.
The precocious Lou lives with her two younger sisters and single mother (Emily Barclay, excellent as usual) in a run-down rural property amid the cane fields, where they periodically try to dodge the landlord. Since the girls’ father left the scene, their mother has been struggling financially. Lou clearly misses her father bitterly and resents her mother for the break-up – cue the kind of resentful behaviour and acting up more commonly found in 15-year-olds.
When social services approach the mother and ask her to take in the kids’ long-lost grandfather Doyle (the reliable John Hurt, sporting a northern English accent), in exchange for financial remuneration, she agrees. With the mother at work during the day, Lou is left to spend time with this peculiar stranger who, thanks to his age-associated condition, doesn’t seem to know what’s going on around him for much of the time. Naturally this only increases her sense of resentment. The old man is clearly not capable of taking responsibility for his own life, let alone that of an 11-year-old, and when he starts to mistake the girl for his late wife, it’s clear trouble is brewing.
I watched Lou within a few days of viewing Andrea Arnold’s compelling British council-estate drama Fish Tank, and while the milieus in which both films are set could not be more different, and the two protagonists are a few years apart in age, there remain striking similarities. These are both stories of troubled girls living with single mums whom they deeply resent; girls who start spending a lot of time with an adult male their mothers have introduced into their homes.
I won’t give anything away about the way the films develop in their second halves other than to point out that where the Australian film tends to only flirt with high drama, the British one embraces it with full-blooded enthusiasm. Both films put their heroines through a crisis but in the UK title that crisis is pushed to its conclusion so the viewer is taken on a gripping emotional journey.
There’s a lesson here for local screenwriters. Lou is a lyrical film, beautifully crafted in many ways, that ultimately shies away from pushing its characters into the intense climax the audience is awaiting. It’s lovely to watch, yet with more script care this could have turned from a lovely film that will probably be seen by relatively few, to one that grabs viewers by the scruff of their necks and has them talking about it for days afterwards.