A cancer-stricken Aussie mother delivers wisdom-dispensing farewell monologues to her three grown-up daughters in "Little Sparrows."

A cancer-stricken Aussie mother delivers wisdom-dispensing farewell monologues to her three grown-up daughters in “Little Sparrows,” but rookie scribe-helmer Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen is unable to turn the proceedings into either a full-blown three-hankie weepie or a female empowerment pic. Instead, the predominant tone is at once strangely muted and, at times, overly theatrical, leaving it up to the uneven ensemble to pump some life into this moribund tale of late-in-the-game familial bonding accelerated by impending death. Film Movement picked up Stateside rights to the Rome competish title but will have a tough time marketing it beyond the Lifetime crowd.

Pic consists of a prologue in which all the characters are introduced in v.o.; chapters named after each of the three daughters; and an epilogue that neatly ties up all loose ends and explains the film’s title. But rather than offering structural support, the neatly captioned segments only underline how much Chen’s screenplay resembles a rudimentary template rather than an organically flowing story.

Middle-aged matriarch Susan (Nicola Bartlett) takes in stride the news that her breast cancer has returned, telling her hubby (James Hagan) in clear terms they might be facing their last Christmas together. The no-nonsense woman’s offspring are troubled in their own ways: Eldest daughter Nina (Nina Deasley) is a young widow with two kids who meets an old friend (Simon Lockwood) she’d lost contact with; middle daughter Anna (Melanie Munt) is an aspiring actress unhappily married to a filmmaker (Scott Jackson); and young Christine (Arielle Gray) is a sprightly med student whose childhood secret foreshadows her sexual coming-of-age.

The juxtaposition of a terminal illness with more mundane problems such as infidelity and blossoming sexuality gives the film a soapy edgy it never quite shakes off, even if Susan’s three major scenes with her daughters (in which the dying woman does most of the talking) make the film feel so stagy one half expects an “exeunt” caption to appear onscreen at the end. Without a clear handle on the tone of the material, the film achieves only minor impact.

Fil Baker edits the heterogeneous material without a real feel for momentum. Each chapter starts with a self-consciously arty interview segment with the daughter in question before cutting between scenes that cover the clan’s last Christmas dinner and the daughter’s tearful goodbye at her mother’s hospital bed. Susan dispenses her hard-learned life lessons as if the younger generation had zero life experience up until that point — which in turn might suggest she wasn’t all that great a mother to begin with.

Among the actresses, Munt shows the most promise as a fresh young face and makes the most of her character, the least developed of the sisters (her only “problem,” besides her mother’s ill health, is that she’s a lesbian). Gray and Deasley are both adequate in less likable but slightly more complex roles. Auds’ appreciation of linchpin Bartlett’s perf may vary, with some likely to find her more sympathetic than others; she certainly shows no fear in tackling the role head-on.

Camerawork veers between a handheld, kitchen-sink aesthetic and a more composed approach, while the busy score at times is too prominent to let the story breathe of its own accord.

Little Sparrows

Australia

Production

A Film Movement (in U.S.) release of a Bolderpictures production. (International sales: Umedia, Paris.) Produced by Eva Di Blasio. Executive producer, Peter Thomas. Directed, written by Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jason Thomas; editor, Fil Baker; music, Keith van Geyzel, Tim Count; costume designer, Michelle Ridley; sound, Owen Hughes. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 3, 2010. Running time: 88 MIN.With: Nicola Bartlett, Nina Deasley, Melanie Munt, Arielle Gray, Scott Jackson, Simon Lockwood, Nick Candy, James Hagan.
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