Soft Fruit

(Christina Andreef, Australia, 1999)


From an audience’s point of view, the problem with many contemporary Australian films is simply this: nothing leaps off the screen and grabs the viewer. The characters are neither lovable nor detestable; the story is not compelling; the style has no energy.


Soft Fruit, the first feature by acclaimed short filmmaker Christina Andreef (The Gap, 1993), is a characteristically over-ambitious, over-crowded debut. It is full of elements familiar from Australian cinema of the late ‘90s: the depressed, suburban setting; a dash of multiculturalist spice; wacky hi-jinx in slightly desperate search of comic relief.


But the characters are arresting, and the actors who incarnate them are uniformly appealing. Three sisters – Josie (Genevieve Lemon), Vera (Alicia Talbot), and Nadia (Sacha Horler) – gather around their ill mother, Patsy (Jeanie Drynan). Their wayward brother, Bo (Russell Dykstra), would gladly join them if their father, Vic (Linal Haft), ever allowed him through the door.


This is a certified dysfunctional family. Andreef (who also wrote the script) hesitates between turning this bunch into either a cheery, TV sitcom brigade or a Gothic hotbed of violence, frustration and unfinished business.


So we never really come to understand why all three sisters are overweight, why Vic is so feared by all, or why Patsy didn’t let her dreams lead her on adventures long ago. But it’s easy to enjoy just about everything happening in the here and now: the women's weight-loss contest; Bo’s eloquent, oddball wit; the little escapes from home that each character contrives.


Andreef inherits more than a few stylistic problems from her mentor (and here Executive Producer) Jane Campion. Soft Fruit tends to become a string of individual scenes, moments and vignettes. Heightened details or self-consciously striking images (in slow motion or with an unusual texture) punctuate the generally naturalistic flow at regular intervals.


But is the film ever more than the sum of these parts? One longs for an overall, satisfying shape to proceedings – a sturdy play of rhymes and echo effects from one scene to another; or some narrative pattern that gives extra meaning and resonance to the comparative states and moods of the characters.


On every level, it is instructive to compare Soft Fruit with Festen (The Celebration, 1998), also about a family reunion. Where Thomas Vinterberg evokes a palpable sense of both space (the family home) and time (from dusk to dawn), Andreef never really finds a structure to support and express her story.


As a result, Soft Fruit is a formless, meandering movie. Andreef toys with too many ideas and too many character arcs – to the detriment, at times, of clarity and impact.


On the other hand, it is undeniably a film with a lot of heart, an openness of attitude, and a generous, democratic spirit. Andreef (unlike Ana Kokkinos) resists making the nuclear family an emblem of all that is repressive, traumatic and stultifying in society.


There is more than a touch of melancholy in Soft Fruit, but it manages in the end – despite its flaws and uncertainties – to be a surprisingly warm and affirming testament.

© Adrian Martin October 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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