Downplaying the camp, gender-bending and fantastical elements of his 1993 debut feature, adventuresome bodice-ripper “Desperate Remedies” (but only by comparison), Kiwi writer-helmer Stewart Main’s overdue sophomore effort is a kidpic-of-sorts that ends up being just as peculiar. New pic “50 Ways of Saying Fabulous” is a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s rural New Zealand that incongruously mixes a frolicksome tone with disturbing content. Results work on their own distinctive terms, though some viewers may find pic off-key, overfamiliar in gist, or in questionable taste. Theatrical export is possible, though small-screen gigs could prove easier to access.
Adapting Graeme Aitken’s novel, Main’s first solo directorial feature (“Remedies” was co-directed with Peter Wells) depicts the Central Otago region of N.Z.’s South Island through the viewpoint of its young principal protags, whose imaginative play sometimes borders on the delusional.
Billy (Andrew Paterson) is a chunky 12-year-old whose penchant for dress-up and theatrics make it clear to nearly everyone he’s a budding “poofter.” But Billy doesn’t even know what that slur means, yet, let alone concepts like “homosexual.”
His best friend and fellow misfit is same-aged cousin Lou (Harriet Beattie), as androgynously tomboy as he is femme. An avid rugby player (on an otherwise all-boy team), she’s horrified by the onset of adolescent body development, and her mother’s corresponding attempts to get her into a dress.
While Lou is tough enough to get away with being different in their one-room country school, Billy is the target for bullies, at least whenever Lou can’t protect him.
With the arrival of gawky, slightly older Roy (Jay Collins), however, that dynamic changes. Forced to be the newcomer’s deskmate, Billy is torn between gratitude at having a new friend and glee at finally having somebody even lower on the social totem pole. He commences a distressing cycle of one minute encouraging intimacy with the new boy — even sexually so –and the next joining others in persecuting him.
Meanwhile, Billy can’t keep their friendship secret enough to avoid provoking Lou’s jealousy, and things get trickier after his dad hires hunky young farmhand Jamie (Michael Dorman).
Despite its whimsical tone (and title) “50 Ways” is far from affirming or inspirational. Child behaviors here are often cruel and devious in the extreme. Protags Billy and Lou are frequently horrid, especially toward each other. While the precociously sexual Roy is a tad creepy, he’s also a damaged case who the story leaves victimized. A lukewarm ending seems to shrug off the seriousness of what’s passed before.
Offsetting — some might say sugarcoating — the script’s more disturbing aspects are the helmer’s elaborately worked stylistic tacks, which will irk or delight, depending on one’s taste. Willfully cheesy f/x pop up throughout.
It’s not entirely clear whether Peter Scholes’ original score, with its synthy kids-show cavorting, is intentionally cheesy. Saturated color and retro zoom-lensing by Simon Raby heighten the pic’s surreal edge, as does the affectionate attention paid to garish period decor and dress.
Main child thesps, all nonpros making their first screen appearances, are exceptionally good — not the least 7-year-old Georgia McNeill as Billy’s forever tagging-along little sis. Dorman is deft in what’s by far the most defined adult role.