Deadpan comedy mashup of the classic coming-of-age story mostly succeeds
Girl Asleep turns growing up into a nightmarish yet oddly humorous journey
Directed by Rosemary Myers
Starring Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet
Being a teenager is hard. While experiences may vary for each individual, most are at least familiar with the idea of the angst-ridden, hyper-aware emotional upheaval that the stereotypical adolescent experiences. It is precisely this almost indescribable internal journey that director Rosemary Myers attempts to depict through her eccentric feature film debut, Girl Asleep, set in the bell-bottom jeans and high-waisted shorts era of 1970s Australia.
The film is heavily influenced by director Wes Anderson’s penchant for symmetrical shot composition and a bold color palette. This becomes immediately apparent in the film’s opening scenes, which involve two awkward youths dressed in solidly colored yellow and red uniforms sitting on a perfectly centered school bench. The characters’ incongruent mannerisms and nonchalant deliveries are characteristic of an Anderson film. Myers uses this as inspiration for her own creation of a fun and absurd cinematic spin on reality. Events taking place on Feb. 31 and other bizarre inconsistencies provide comic relief and allow for a heightened suspension of disbelief because the premise of realism is never actually established.
The two youths who are first introduced are the exceedingly normal new girl at school, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore), and the verbose and socially awkward Elliott (Harrison Feldman). The two eventually become close friends and are faced with the usual teenage mean-girl drama which is satisfyingly portrayed by a pair of tall, icy-eyed twins, and an exceptionally catty bully.
For the first half of this film, Girl Asleep rides the same wave of teenage gawkiness and embarrassment that once propelled Napoleon Dynamite to cult stardom. The melding of deadpan humor with an aggressive use of awkward pauses and silences creates lighthearted unease that seems novel at first but quickly wears thin after repeated overuse. Eventually, these scenes become rather flat-footed and slow. Actual verbal or situational humor is not frequently used, with the film choosing instead to rely more on visual gags, exaggerated caricatures, and uncomfortable silences.
The real problem arises for Greta, a wallflower on the cusp of turning 15, when her parents decide to invite all of her classmates to a groovy, disco-themed birthday party. Matthew Whittet and Amber McMahon successfully portray Greta’s parents as charming 1970s caricatures of the meddlesome parent stereotype. The headband-wearing Janet (McMahon) pedals furiously on her stationary living room bicycle while lecturing Greta, and Conrad (Whittet) launches into cheesy dad-jokes at the dinner table to a chorus of exasperated groans. The overall performances in the film seem a tad over-acted, but this style parallels the eccentric personality of the film’s visuals and pacing, thus further establishing its idiosyncratic feel.
With her birthday party looming as a physical manifestation of her social anxieties and fears, she is forced to come to terms with her underlying internal reservations toward adolescent changes through an extended dreamlike sequence that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. As Greta takes a jarring plunge into the world of the creepy, the uncanny, and the symbolic, the film pivots 180 degrees. It takes on a darkly suspenseful and frightening atmosphere as Greta enters the metaphorical forest that seems to represent her journey toward understanding her new adolescent self. Unfortunately, too many sudden shifts back and forth between eerie anxiety and poker-faced humor leave the viewer with tonal whiplash.
The film’s artistic representation of the intangible emotional journey is admittedly powerful and carefully crafted with meaningful symbolism and references to characters from her real life that paint a relatable depiction of the adolescent experience. It seems strange though that a film that attempts to most accurately portray the darkness and struggles that plague adolescence would choose to tie up loose ends and remedy all broken relationships so neatly and perfectly in the last ten minutes.
Girl Asleep has its strengths and is a great movie for viewers seeking a mix of deadpan humor, 1970s Australian culture, metaphors for the adolescent experience, and creepy childhood nightmare fuel. However, for those who aren’t, skipping this film is no great loss.