Friends and Strangers, MA 15+. 82 minutes. 4 stars
It's going to be a challenge for the rest of us when a writer-director finds it hard to say in a few concise sentences what their film is about.
Friends and Strangers is clearly about class, generational conflict and colonialism, but writer-director James Vaughan offers up a main character who doesn't really know what he wants in life, let alone how to get it, and there is little in the way of a narrative arc.
Yet, this affectless main character and his journey of little consequence are intriguing for all the reasons it resists easy categorisation. With a sharp ear for language, Vaughan has - in this impressive debut feature - captured the zeitgeist of a disaffected young generation who haven't yet figured out how to be.
The cast is mainly non-actors, including Fergus Wilson as the lead character Ray, and they nail it, with one or two awkward exceptions. The naturalistic but alienating off-kilter look and feel of the film is enhanced by terrific cinematography by Dimitri Zaunders with its occasional haunting score.
There have been plenty of other slackers, stoners and various other dudes who have mumbled and shuffled their way through their mid-20s on screen, but the character of Ray is a sweet and engaging creation. As dazed and confused and clueless as the rest, but definitely straight edge.
First seen at the beach, Ray's figure flits across the landscape, clothed from head to foot while everyone else is wearing a cozzie. Is he checking out the babes, or is he looking away from their scantily clad bodies? He loiters, eating his Cornetto or sipping a beer in the background among the potted cacti. Ray, as played by Wilson and written by Vaughan, is lovingly detailed in his affectless manner, artless social interaction, lack of assertiveness and crippling, thoughtful hesitation.
Although Ray's dialogue and that of the other characters can feel and sound like improv, it was around 99 per cent written and ready to rock for a tight 33-day shoot. It is a huge credit to the young director and his cast that most of the flow seems so natural. Vaughan has a very sharp sense of the cadences and the content of everyday speech, for young and old.
Ray is "the video guy" to prospective clients like David (Greg Zimbulis) who wants to hire him to film his daughter's wedding, Ray isn't exactly mastering the gig economy either. It is hardly professional to keep a client waiting for an hour or so without offering any explanation or update.
The interaction with David, wealthy beyond measure, the owner of a harbourside mansion stuffed with hilariously bad artworks, is the most sustained and the most revealing of the social anomalies of an affluent class in charge. The financial services industry is the name of the game in Dave's neighbourhood, and poor, lost Ray and his almost-girlfriend, Alice (Emma Diaz), who works for a regulator enforcing tax law, are the middle-class heirs to it.
To the young women Ray knows, he is one of those sincere guys, earnest and full-on. In other words, an odd one. He had his chance with Alice on their impromptu camping trip but he blew that too.
The trip to a remote camping ground introduced other aspects of Australian society. A busybody retiree who takes it on himself to advise Alice and Ray where to pitch their tent, and a cultured and also vaguely creepy retiree travelling the country with his pre-adolescent daughter.
Set against both cityscapes that invoke Jeffrey Smart, and the incredible beauty of the Australian coast and inland, Friends and Strangers opens and closes at one of the most beautiful beaches on Sydney Harbour. It's not named, but Sydneysiders will be aware of its connection to the origins of white settlement. It is only a few beaches along from the spot on the harbour's southern shore where the First Fleet first landed and set up camp.
From the glimpse at the start of a triumphalist Captain Phillip on his plinth with Indigenous figuration below to the end credits that acknowledge that the film was made on Indigenous lands, First Nation people never appear in frame. Yet they are there, a presence, historic and contemporary, all the more powerful for this absence.
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