The leap from addiction to acceptability is strewn with obstacles in "Little Fish," a superior working-class meller from Down Under. Blessed with stellar performances, especially by lead Cate Blanchett as an ex-junkie looking for a fresh break, this sophomore feature by Australian director Rowan Woods marks a strong return after his powerful debut, "The Boys" (1998).

The leap from addiction to acceptability is strewn with obstacles in “Little Fish,” a superior working-class meller from Down Under. Blessed with stellar performances, especially by lead Cate Blanchett as an ex-junkie looking for a fresh break, this sophomore feature by Australian director Rowan Woods marks a strong return after his powerful debut, “The Boys” (1998). Blanchett’s name is the hook for international markets, but pic’s slow, intense pacing is likely to lead more to fest and arthouse engagements than to wider biz. However, B.O. on September release in Oz is likely to be strong.

Blanchett plays Tracy Heart, 32, a reformed drug addict who lives in Sydney’s Little Saigon district with her mother, Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst), who keeps her daughter on a tight rein. Tracy has a job as a videostore manager but wants to open her own business if she can get a bank loan.

Tracy is on good terms with her estranged stepfather, Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving), a junkie and former sports hero. While Tracy is visiting Lionel one night, crime boss (and Lionel’s occasional lover) Brad “The Jockey” Thompson (Sam Neill) comes by to drop off some heroin for Lionel and also to announce his own retirement.

Noting Lionel’s return to active addiction, Tracy decides to give her stepdad a wider berth. But other reminders of her druggie past surface in the form of her former dealer/b.f., Jonny (Dustin Nguyen).

After five years away in Vancouver, Jonny claims to have a career as a stockbroker and Tracy finds she still has feelings for him. However, unbeknownst to her, Jonny is planning a “one-time” score and has recruited Tracy’s disabled brother, Ray (Martin Henderson), into his scheme.

Though the film’s pacing is somewhat over-deliberate, script by Aussie TV writer Jacquelin Perske is dense with subplots and always holds the attention. Some narrative ellipses seem designed to tease viewers’ suspicions, but may baffle some.

Nonetheless, Woods’ direction is tightly controlled, with Danny Ruhlmann’s camera restlessly observing the characters. Slow-burning narrative gets a boost in the tense climax, where most of the plot threads cleverly intersect.

Blanchett is superlative as Tracy, an older, sadder, wiser version of the visiting “cousin” in her segment of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Supporting perfs are very strong.

Kiwi actor Henderson is a revelation as Ray, and both Hazlehurst and Neill quickly sketch credible personalities as Tracy’s mom and Brad. However, it’s Weaving who almost steals the film with his sensational portrait of Lionel.

Only false note is Nguyen’s Jonny, whose accent unnecessarily and distractingly seems to float between various continents.

Little Fish

Australia

Production

An Icon Film Distribution release of a Film Finance Corp. Australia presentation of a Porchlight Films production, in association with Mullis Capital Independent, New South Wales Film & Television Office, Myriad Pictures, Dirty Films. (International sales: Myriad, Los Angeles.) Produced by Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts, Richard Keddie. Executive producers, Robert Mullis, Barrie M. Osborne, Kirk D'Amico, Marion Pilowsky. Directed by Rowan Woods. Screenplay, Jacquelin Perske.

Crew

Camera (color), Danny Ruhlmann; editors, Alexandre De Franceschi, John Scott; music, Nathan Larson; production designer, Luigi Pittorino; costume designer, Melinda Doring; sound (Dolby Digital), Sam Petty; casting, Ann Robinson, Mullinars Consultants. Reviewed at Hoyts Director's Suite, Sydney, July 4, 2005. (In Melbourne Film Festival -- opener. Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 113 MIN. (English, Vietnamese dialogue)

With

Tracy Heart - Cate Blanchett Brad "The Jockey" Thompson - Sam Neill Lionel Dawson - Hugo Weaving Ray Heart - Martin Henderson Janelle Heart - Noni Hazlehurst Jonny Nguyen - Dustin Nguyen Steven Moss - Joel Tobeck

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