The Boy Who Had Everything

(Stephen Wallace, Australia, 1983)


Stephen Wallace’s semi-autobiographical account of a young man’s university days rite of passage in the mid ’60s has a somewhat unresolved, confused, compromised feel. It comes as no surprise to learn that the writer-director originally intended a “much dirtier” and more despairing film set further into the decade. (1) Yet, for all that, it remains a fascinating work, exploring psycho-social complexes broached nowhere else in Australian feature filmmaking.

Like many Australian films of the ’80s, it tentatively and uncertainly tries to construct a generic hybrid. Much of the project is assimilable to the whimsical, nostalgic period film ethos of ’70s Australian cinema, with its themes of growing up, accepting the imperfectness of adult life, breaking away from constrictive family bonds, etc (for example, The Year My Voice Broke [1987]). However, its prolonged sequences detailing college initiation rites, some played for laughs and others pitched more sombrely, evoke the international genre of the teen movie – see similar scenes in Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988), Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War (1988) and even John Landis’ Animal House (1978), to which it was likened by the Monthly Film Bulletin on its UK release.

The film is most interesting and radical as a study of psycho-social alienation. John (Jason Connery) is, from the word go, painfully disenchanted, empty at his centre for reasons of which he is only dimly aware. After having everything as the gifted progeny of a repressed, comfortable bourgeois culture, John plays out within himself the traumas of history (the coming Vietnam war) and of changing social and cultural mores (signalled by rock music and a performance of Boris Vian’s absurdist play The Empire Builders). He is especially maladaptive and broken on the sexual level, able only to make love only with whores that enable him to feel momentarily free (i.e., not his socialised self), while his girlfriend Robin (Laura Williams) dauntingly incarnates the continuance of bourgeois repression.

Most daringly and touchingly, the film locates John’s alienation as stemming from a repression in his relationship to his drunken, miserable mother (Diane Cilento), culminating in his demand to her that they “touch each other more … I don’t want it underneath”. Virtually all reviewers referred to this derisively as the hero’s Oedipal complex, but it is in fact a quite socially and historically specific problem – the film’s truest and deepest trans-personal insight. Equally perceptive and melancholy is the film’s ending, which shows John and Robin at last breaking away from this world, but John’s likeable best friend Graham (Nique Needles) happily resigning to his place within it (“I actually like it here”).

Despite its thematic interest, the film has plenty of problems. The marking of key historical events and cultural movements (Vietnam, avant-garde art, uninhibited rock dancing) are brief and clumsy; and, apart from Connery’s fine portrait of alienated youth, the acting is alarmingly variable. The shifts in tone from a nostalgic indulgence of all things ’60s to dispassionate or angry despair seem to bespeak the changing orientation of and influences upon the project from initial idea to final realisation. But The Boy Who Had Everything gives ample indication of Wallace’s vaulting artistic ambition and fierce filmmaking intelligence.

© Adrian Martin February 1991


1. See David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation (London: Macmillan, 1990). back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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