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Peaches

(Craig Monahan, Australia/Canada, 2005)


 


Like A Home at the End of the World (2004), Craig Monahan's second feature Peaches is an extended-family drama which starts with a catastrophic trauma: in this case, the death of the parents of Stephanie (Emma Lung) in a car accident.

Stephanie is in fact well known in this small town as the 'miracle baby' born in the immediate aftermath of this accident – destined to be not only loved but also over-protected by her guardian, Jude (Jacqueline McKenzie).

But where is the father-figure? Alan (Hugo Weaving) split from Jude not long after Stephanie's arrival in their lives. Now there is an enigmatic, largely unspoken hostility between them that is frequently evident on the factory floor of the local fruit cannery. This is a mystery which the teenage Steph is compelled to unlock, with the aid of her mother's long-concealed diary.

Like A Home at the End of the World and The Edukators (2004), Peaches is about the lost idealism of a once-young generation. Jude and Alan stand for all those who have settled for security, a certain code of social normality – as indicated not only by their personal lives, but also Alan's increasingly compromised involvement in the trade union movement (we first encounter him, in the present day, as a foreman).

It is far too easy for stories about ex-radical characters to surrender to some bogus wisdom about the need to grow up, settle down and face reality. Sue Smith's superb script for Peaches faces head-on what it might mean to take the risk of reviving the radical spirit of days gone by.

This theme is boldly expressed in Stephanie's transgressive attraction for Alan – which is (in a frankly perverse way) her means of getting to know Jude better, as well as of shaking the small-town status quo. Naturally, an aura of father-daughter incest is ever-present here – and this perversity is increased, rather than diluted, by the hovering presence of Alan's younger brother as the more conventional love-match Steph seems destined for. No wonder Margaret Pomeranz on television's At the Movies was compelled to exclaim: "The film takes a leap ... and I didn't want to go where it took me!"

Peaches is a strong, emotionally engaging film that probes areas few Australian movies dare approach. As he showed in his debut The Interview (1998) – if it seems a long time between drinks, that is partly because Peaches was substantially finished in 2003 and then held back from distribution for legal reasons – Monahan is a wonderful director of actors. McKenzie and Weaving, giving understated performances, have never been better on screen, while Lung, a veritable life-force in motion, is a revelation. Around these fine actors, Monahan crafts crisp, expressive scenes that are full of dialogue but never merely televisual.

There are some niggling problems in the film's construction. Stephanie's dyslexia is represented in an odd, clumsy fashion. The relentless peach-related metaphors and references quickly grow tiresome. A key dramatic moment in the film involving sexual activity is overly discreet. And any movie which spends so much time and effort narrating (with voice-over) a past backstory will almost inevitably end up neglecting to sufficiently drive the present-day story forward.

But my only real regret about Peaches – undoubtedly among the best Australian movies of recent times – is that the Nick Cave (and The Bad Seeds – another fruit reference) song "Bring It On", which so beautifully sums up the film's spirit and intelligence, is not allowed to run longer and louder over its touching final scenes.

© Adrian Martin June 2005


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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