Initially pitching to tweeners and early teens, Aussie coming-of-ager "Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger" later skids into facts-of-life territory many parents won't want their kids to watch.

Initially pitching to tweeners and early teens, Aussie coming-of-ager “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” later skids into facts-of-life territory many parents won’t want their kids to watch. Reminiscent of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — but without that film’s scripting smarts and pulling power across demographics — writer-helmer Cathy Randall’s sporadically amusing debut has a domestic marketing mountain to climb after being assigned an “M” (mature) certificate by local censors. Buoyed by a winning supporting performance from Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”), pic has performed modestly since its March 20 release, following its world preem at the Berlinale. Offshore prospects are mild.

A rare example of a Jewish protag in an Australian film, bespectacled nerd Esther Blueburger (Danielle Catanzariti) resiliently weathers humiliations at a posh girls’ school. Decently constructed opening also shows her as an eccentric who keeps a pet duckling named Normal and prays into a toilet bowl, asking God to “get me out of here.”

Esther’s home life isn’t much better. Stressed-out mother Grace (Essie Davis) and bland father Osmond (Russell Dykstra) clearly favor her twin brother Jacob (Christian Byers). Fleeing her clunkily staged bat mitzvah-from-hell, Esther is befriended by Sunni (Castle-Hughes), a punky nonconformist from a rough-and-tumble public school. Rest of the film turns on a plan hatched by the new pals whereby Esther secretly swaps schools.

Despite the never-acknowledged age difference — 17-year-old thesp Castle-Hughes dwarfs diminutive 14-year-old Catanzariti — Esther easily enrolls in Sunni’s class as a Swedish exchange student. Comic potential is frittered away by lazy plotting that requires Esther to jump through only the most perfunctory of hoops while hiding the secret from her family.

Cheerfully encouraging the deception, and straining plot credibility, is Sunni’s single mother, Mary (Toni Collette, also an exec producer), a stripper who wants to improve her lot.

Screenplay jumps the rails once now-popular Esther grapples with sexual awakening and peer pressure. By now creepily out of alignment with its initially tweener-safe tone, pic is futher hampered by a visit to Mary’s strip joint and abruptly imposed tragic melodrama in the final act.

Despite uninspired dialogue and direction, newcomer Catanzariti impresses as the oddball finding her niche. But the show, such as it is, belongs to top-billed Castle-Hughes. Deftly shading Sunni with vulnerability beneath the bravado, the charismatic thesp should have a bright future in the adult roles she’s ready to play.

Minus a few colorful fantasy sequences, the visuals lack sparkle. Widescreen compositions are plain and overindulge in long, energy-sapping overhead shots. Pacing could be tightened considerably. Lovely theme song, Aussie electronica guru Paul Mac’s “The Only One,” and Guy Gross’ boppy score are notable in a technical package that’s otherwise telemovie-level proficient.

Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger

Australia

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Australia release of a Film Finance Corp. Australia presentation of a Tama Films production, in association with Claymore Capital, Showtime Australia, South Australian Film Corp., 120dB Films. (International sales: Lightning Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Miriam Stein. Executive producers, Heather Ogilvie, Stephen Hays, Peter M. Graham II, Anton Rosenberg, Toni Collette. Directed, written by Cathy Randall.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Anna Howard; editor, Dany Cooper; music, Guy Gross; production designer, Nell Hanson; art director, Janie Parker; costume designer, Shareen Beringer; sound (Dolby Digital), Des Kenneally; sound designer, Liam Egan; associate producers, Harry Clein, Kristin Andersons, Jessica Hatherall, Rebecca Wong; assistant director, Chris Webb; casting, Anousha Zarkesh, Angela Heesom. Reviewed at Sony Theaterette, Sydney, March 5, 2008. (In Berlin Film Festival -- Generation Kplus.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Keisha Castle-Hughes, Danielle Catanzariti, Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra, Christian Byers, Toni Collette.
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