Afeature debut that packs a knockout punch, the Australian “Praise” is a surprise for both its potent content and technical skill. The story of young down-and-outers is unsparing in detail, yet possesses a sly sense of humor that allows us to get under the skin of its characters rather than dismiss them. The stunning first film should score top marks with critics, which will pave the way for upbeat niche returns internationally on the order of such recent tough-minded entertainment as “Once Were Warriors” and “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Twentysomething Gordon (Peter Fenton) has chucked his convenience store gig to drink and hang out in his flea-pit Brisbane apartment-hotel with the other marginals. Cynthia (Sacha Holder), a former co-worker, invites him over to her parents’ house for a party, and when he arrives he discovers he’s the only guest. They proceed to spend days drinking, doing drugs and just gabbing. Finally, she proposes sex and the two go at it with the same sort of excess that characterized their use of chemical stimulants.
This unusual co-dependent relationship is cemented when Cynthia decides to stay with Gordon rather than follow her family to another city. There’s not much holding them together other than the dire prospect of going it alone. He’s unfocused and unmotivated, and she’s consumed by low self-esteem stemming from being plain-looking, overweight and ravaged by a fierce case of eczema. It shouldn’t add up to more than a sketch about indulgence and the consequent burnout.
But American-born, Oz-based filmmaker John Curran provides both keen observation and wit to what could have been simply an unrelentingly downbeat tale. There’s certainly plenty of in-your-face sex, drugs and emotion, yet he manages to weave in scripter Andrew McGahan’s points in a manner that incorporates the absurd and comic. There’s something poignant and funny about Gordon’s decision to seek out sex therapy because he’s unable to control his orgasms; his internal dialogues have a directness that one recognizes as brutally cruel and humorous. Still, it’s the underlying tenderness writer and helmer demonstrate toward the two central characters that ultimately gives “Praise” its power.
Fenton has an easy likability as Gordon. He’s not classically handsome, but his attractiveness comes from a shabby grace and wry outlook that underline the pitifulness of his malaise. Holder has the more obviously meaty part and assails it with a raw abandon that’s alternately frightening and touching. Her perf is perfectly pitched in a way that lets us understand why these people are together and that the union cannot last.
Vividly shot by Dion Beebe, the film has an elegant pace and style that aptly complements the text. The material demands, and Curran delivers, a ferocity and assurance even vet helmers rarely achieve. The curiously titled “Praise” is an exceptionally moving and heartfelt film.