Birthday parties are overwhelming at the best of times, but they don’t get much worse than Greta Driscoll’s.
On the cusp of 15, Greta (Bethany Whitmore), she’s surrounded by a world that’s seemingly been handed a guidebook to the strange new world of teenagerdom, of romance and popular girls and sexy French musicians, little of which she feels at home in.
But her overly confident parents have done the unthinkable — invited the whole class to her birthday party.
It’s a night that’s strange and sad and lonely, something that takes everything terrible about growing up and packages it into a couple of hours. Overwhelmed and upset, she retreats to the one place that gives her comfort, that holds everything about the world she recognises — her bedroom. It’s here she becomes part Tim Burton-imagined Alice in Wonderland by way of Wes Anderson, slipping into a surreal, funny and frightening fantasy world that looks rather similar to her own.
The dizzyingly imaginative Australian film, Girl Asleep, asks for plenty of comparisons to the likes of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Napoleon Dynamite, boasting a dollhouse-like aesthetic and awkward humour that places it in close company with many an American coming-of-age film. But director Rosemary Myers, who helmed the play on which it’s based back in 2014, focuses on both the humour and tragedy of growing up.
Myers brings this cacophony of excitement and fear to life with an infectious energy helped by the theatrical flourishes retained from the play. Party guests make their synchronised entrance to disco classic Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) as multi-coloured light globes flash, leaving Greta standing dumbfounded before she joins in momentarily.
Her house, which is decorated in 1970s textured wood and brightly coloured furniture, feels like an elaborate dollhouse opening to be explored, an intricate and hidden wonderland that extends to the forest behind. Here, adolescence and the unknown takes shape as the common metaphor of a forest one must fight their way through.
It’s the combination of laughter and loss brought to the screen by Myers, Whitmore, and the rest of the cast that makes Girl Asleep such a singular, moving experience.
Coming of age films rarely consider the fear of growing up, settling more for the frenetic excitement and awkwardness of adolescence, culminating in discovering friendship and belonging. But in that, they forget the sense of mourning that accompanies moving into the unknown, a longing for the comfort and innocence of childhood that was seemingly snatched in a second.
Greta wants to grow up, but it’s the uncertainty that frightens her, the fact that everyone else seems to have figured out how to make the leap into the unknown relatively easily. But as the film reveals, a guidebook to adolescence is a myth. There’s no one way to grow up, and it doesn’t mean leaving childhood as merely a distant memory. it will take time for Greta to get there.
But for now, it sure makes for a memorable birthday.
Girl Asleep screens at New Farm Cinemas and Palace Barracks from Thursday 8 September.