54th Chicago Int’l Film Fest #11: “Flammable Children” (Australia)

“Flammable Children” aka “Swinging Safari” (Australia)
Directed by Stephan Elliott

a7c75c873a40fb64b8010304997c4dcaec87ef5bLying somewhere in style between Aussie versions of my “Wet Hot American Summer” and 2016’s “Everybody Wants Some”, “Flammable Children” (known as “Swinging Safari” in its home country), Stephan Elliott’s re-imagining of his childhood, is all kinds of over-the-top. As broad a comedy as I’ve seen in some time, there is almost nothing about the film that is not caricature.

Taking place in suburban/coastal Sydney over one summer in the seventies, Elliott has obviously put a ton of effort in to getting the period design just so, and toward that end, it’s extremely successful. Most films get it wrong by spending too much time on pop culture references. Luckily, Elliott sticks to the look and behaviors of his characters to convey time and place. Colin Gibson’s production design is crazy…and evocative. And cinematographer, Brad Shield, accurately heightens to depth of color…just as it exists in our childhood memory banks.

And while every character, save one, plays the entire script for knee-slappers, guffaws and the same kind of eye-rolling present reserved for the misogynist teen comedies of the eighties, they do give it their complete all. As a result the outrageous non-PC aspects of the film, just as in “Summer”, are excused because they exist as historical touchstones, rather than statement. The adults, in particular, teeter on the edge of cringe-worthiness, but they JUST skate by, no doubt due to the acting chops of Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell, the hilarious Julian McMahon, Asher Keddie, and the best of the bunch, Jeremy Sims. The kids are about as committed as can be, and they’re almost all purposefully obnoxious beyond reason. The exceptions are the director’s childhood self, a budding director played with empathy by Oscar Bailey. And the only character played with even a modicum of three-dimensions, is the terrific Darcey Wilson as our hero’s crush.

But here’s the problem…either these jokes are, at best, specific to an Aussie audience, or, worse, just not that funny. In fact, the recent Sling TV spots, starring Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly are funnier in their short thirty second length than most anything in “Children”. And since plot is forced to sit in the way-back seats of a seventies station wagon, that doesn’t leave us with much…other than the aforementioned style and some mind-blowing facial hair. Not sure how it made its way to the Fest. I suppose it IS a window in to a world that is not our own. The problem, though, is that for the humor in a comedy from a different culture to work, it must be at least partially universal (a rule most comedies chosen for the Fest obey). But if all the jokes reference a time and place that is not our own, you end up glancing at your watch long before you get to minute number 97.

If you’re Aussie or a Kiwi (and maybe even a Brit), who went through puberty in the seventies, then there is most likely something in this for you. But if not…well… uh… the trailer actually has some of the best bits…so…there’s that.

Written on 10/29/2018

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