Though the theme — a teenage girl chafes against a clinging Italian family — is a familiar one, “Looking for Alibrandi” is a breath of fresh air. This accomplished adaptation of a popular 1992 novel by Melina Marchetta, built around a glowing central performance from newcomer Pia Miranda, stands every chance of clicking with Aussie audiences, teens as well as older viewers. Offshore chances are less predictable, though presence of Greta Scacchi and Anthony LaPaglia, as the protagonist’s estranged parents, may assist.
Since its publication eight years ago, Marchetta’s heartfelt tome has been mandatory reading in high schools Down Under; because the novelist has adapted the material for the screen, it’s no surprise that the original’s realism, humor and sentiment remain.
At the outset, 17-year-old Josie Alibrandi (Miranda), who lives in the inner suburbs of Sydney with her single mom, Christina (Scacchi), yearns to “get out of here.” She feels hemmed in by the demands of her Sicilian family, especially by her kind but strict grandmother, Nonna Katia (Elena Cotta), who has never forgiven her mother for having a child out of wedlock. The tightly knit, colorful but restrictive world in which Josie has grown up is neatly encapsulated in the opening sequence in which she escapes her extended family’s celebration of what she derisively calls “National Wog Day” by going to the beach with her Italian-born girlfriends.
The intelligent Josie has won a scholarship to an exclusive private school, where she has fallen foul of racist snob Carly (Leeanna Walsman). On the romantic front, she’s torn between two boys — handsome WASP John (Matthew Newton) and scruffy, fun-loving Jacob (Kick Gurry), who goes to a lowly state school.
Meanwhile, Nonna is excited because Michael Andretti (Anthony LaPaglia), a former neighbor who has made good as a lawyer, is returning to Sydney; Christina is less excited — unbeknownst to her mother and daughter, Michael is Josie’s father, and Christina is nervous about a reunion with her former lover.
While coping with all these personal pressures, plus school finals, Josie is profoundly affected by an out-of-left-field tragedy involving the death of someone close to her. But the common sense and resilience of this well-balanced and immensely likable youngster see her through.
“Alibrandi” is beautifully written by Marchetta and is directed with skill and precision by first-time feature filmmaker Kate Woods, who has a solid background in TV drama. The project would not have worked as well as it does, however, if the central casting had not been on the mark: Miranda, onscreen in almost every scene, gives an immensely subtle performance. She conveys not only the spiritedness of a girl who loves and respects her family yet is determined to carve her own path in life, but also the qualities of a shy lover, dedicated student and bereaved friend.
Scacchi gives a mature and intelligent portrayal of the girl’s loving, at times exasperated mother, and LaPaglia charmingly conveys the hesitation and awkwardness of a man getting to know his grown daughter. Newton is fine as the conventionally handsome but strangely remote John, while Gurry, as the raffish Jacob, looks as though he could have a big future. Cotta is lovely as the grandmother who has her own secret, and Kerry Walker is terrific as a stern but caring teacher.
Production values are all on the button, with excellent use made of prime Sydney locations, and the inevitable music track filled with songs by local groups can only enhance the film’s appeal to the youth audience.