Australian helmer Julie Money makes a highly intriguing, if also flawed, feature directorial debut in “Envy,” a provocative, often unsettling drama about the tragic dissolution of a nuclear family as a result of internal and external tensions. Theatrical prospects are iffy for an ambitious film that raises interesting issues about modern family life, youthful love and sexuality, and class disparity and submerged rage in contempo Australian society, but ultimately promises more than it can deliver.
Part family drama, part coming-of-age saga, part revenge thriller, “Envy” is a film that tries to accomplish too much within its short time frame. This is clear from the opening voiceover narration: “This is a family story. This is a sex story. This is a love story.” Overall, the film is much more effective as a dissection of a family, headed by a domineering, insecure mother, Kate (Linda Cropper), whose “good” intentions for her son Matt (Wade Osborne) lead to disastrous results for all concerned.
Tale begins with a petty crime, when Kate’s black dress is stolen from the clothesline in the backyard of her suburban home, where she resides with her husband, Phil (scripter Jeff Truman) and Matt. Theft occurs when the innocent Matt meets Rachel (Anna Lise Phillips), a sexually alluring blonde, and invites her to the house, not knowing anything about her past or motivations. It turns out Rachel is a poor working-class girl, a member of a bunch of hoodlums, led by Nick (Scott Major), who engage in petty crimes, such as harassing pedestrians and lifting wallets.
A few days later, during a chance encounter, Kate spots her dress on Rachel and decides to take it back, not realizing the harmful consequences of her vindictive act. From that moment on, narrative assumes the logic of a thriller, in which every minor act of aggression leads to progressively more negative effects, until the lives of the main protagonists spin out of control.
In the film’s harshest scene, Rachel and Nick break into Kate’s house, tie Matt to his parents’ bed, brutally torture him, and even force him to reach orgasm. (The movie later asks to what extent their sexual violence qualifies as a rape.) The furious Kate becomes obsessed with Rachel, determined to have her pay for her misconduct.
Midsection, which is the film’s weakest segment, centers on the ferociously vengeful mom, whose irrational behavior severely tests her relationships with husband and son. That the mother means well (which is the point of the film) doesn’t help much, and that stage actress Cropper overacts makes her character less sympathetic and more one-dimensional than it must have been on page.
Nonetheless, here and there, some challenging ideas filter through the underdeveloped scenario by Truman. For instance, there’s a touching scene in which the mother, overly concerned that her son has never made love properly, arranges for Rachel to go back to the house and sleep with him in a more tender and normal manner.
Another challenging idea, which remains academic because it’s not fully explored, is Matt’s repeated claim that he loves Rachel and is not her victim. “Envy” might have told a more engaging and subtle story if Truman had focused on the youngsters rather than on the deranged mother. The devastating but not entirely satisfying conclusion gives the impression that other endings might have been considered.
The gifted Money imbues her mise-en-scene with tension, and she is good at framing and pacing, taking full advantage of the harsh visuals provided by lenser Graeme Wood. But the film vacillates between moods too abruptly. In moments, it recalls such borderline exploitation items as “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “Poison Ivy,” thrillers in which a seductive, threatening outsider wreaks havoc on a reasonably stable family.
Despite its shortcomings, “Envy” should serve as a calling card for Money, a director who seems fearless of tackling controversial issues head-on.