A newcomer shakes up a tight community in "Oyster Farmer," a well-observed study of outsiders distinguished by precise performances from a well-cast ensemble. "Oyster" should strike a winning chord with auds Down Under. Fests, arthouse distribs and quality TV broadcasters also will want to take a look at this appealing item.

A newcomer shakes up a tight community in “Oyster Farmer,” a well-observed study of outsiders distinguished by precise performances from a well-cast ensemble. Pic meanders mid-way but otherwise reps a notable debut for Aussie director Anna Reeves. A small, carefully composed film that rejoices in the parochial lingo and mores of its richly textured characters, “Oyster” should strike a winning chord with auds Down Under. Fests, arthouse distribs and quality TV broadcasters also will want to take a look at this appealing item.

Twentysomething Jack Flange (Alex O’Lachlan) moves from Sydney to a small town to support his sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison), who’s recovering from serious injuries sustained in a car crash. Jack gets a job working for gruff oyster farmer Brownie (David Field), but, unable to pay Nikki’s mounting medical bills on his meager wages, Jack robs an armored van and mails the money to himself.

When the river postman suffers a heart attack, Jack’s package falls into the drink, and Jack is left pondering which of his neighbors has wound up with the proceeds and how long he’s got before the law comes calling.

Fluid widescreen lensing by Alun Bollinger and an unusual though highly effective score dominated by jew’s-harp and violin lend a slightly otherworldly atmosphere to the backwater locale. Jack’s panicked search for the missing loot is the lever by which the lives of the river folk are pried open.

Sad sack Brownie and his wise old father Mumbles (Jim Norton) are one bad harvest away from bankruptcy, while Brownie’s estranged wife Trish (Kerry Armstrong) has broken unwritten laws by setting up a thriving farm of her own.

Tucked into a remote inlet is a group of Vietnam veterans led by Skippy (Jack Thompson). Despite Thompson’s sterling perf, however, this brief detour into Joseph Conrad territory adds little to the overall proceedings.

Far more satisfying is the central relationship between Jack and Pearl (Diana Glenn), a free spirited sewerage collector’s daughter dreaming of life beyond the river Pearl is fetchingly portrayed by the debuting Glenn, whose sexual and verbal sparring with O’Lachlan is one of the film’s trump cards. The also-debuting O’Lachlan essays Jack with an affecting honesty.

Though her storytelling takes the odd wrong turn and the loot’s final destination begs more questions than answers, Reeves casts real-life oyster farmers in minor roles and dots her screenplay with rasping regional humor and adroitly selected passages of purple Aussie prose giving pic an authentic feel. Palpable affection for traditional ways endangered by big business and property development is shown through the production design which is littered with rusty and dilapidated remnants of better times. All other tech credits are on the button.

Oyster Farmer

Australia-U.K.

Production

A Dendy Films, Ocean Pictures release (in Australia) of a Film Finance Corp. Australia presentation of an Anthony Buckley Films and Tempo Prods. co-production, in association with Showtime, New South Wales Film and Television Office and Little Wing Films. (International sales: Beyond Intl. Films, London.) Produced by Anthony Buckley, Piers Tempest. Executive producers, Robert Bevan, Mikael Borglund, Hilary Davis, Keith Hayley, Andrew Mackie, Stephen Margolis, Cyril Megret, Richard Peyton, Charlie Savill, Emile Sherman, Jonathan Shteinman. Directed, written by Anna Reeves.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color, Panavision widescreen), Alun Bollinger; editors, Jamie Trevill, Peter Boston; music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Stephen Jones-Evans; art director, Lucinda Johnson; sound (Dolby Digital), Chris Alderton; assistant director, Mark Turnbull; casting, Suzie Maizels. Reviewed at Greater Union screening room, Sydney, Sept. 1, 2004. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Discovery.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Jack - Alex O'Lachlan Mumbles - Jim Norton Pearl - Diana Glenn Brownie - David Field Trish - Kerry Armstrong Nikki - Claudia Harrison Slug - Alan Cinis Skippy - Jack Thompson Bruce - Bob Yearley Heath - Brady Kitchingham
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