Finely tuned observations of first love, long-lost love and mother-daughter dynamics gently coalesce in Aussie domestic drama “Lou.” Blessed by marvelous performances by British vet John Hurt as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted oldster and 11-year-old discovery Lily Bell-Tindley as the granddaughter he’s never seen before, scripter-helmer Belinda Chayko’s first feature since “City Loop” (2000) is slim on plot but long on emotional rewards for upscale auds. A small film requiring strong critical support to travel much beyond Oz, “Lou” is at the very least ideal for fests and quality broadcasters. Domestic B.O. has been moderate since June 18 release.
Living in a “Queenslander” (house on stilts) on the edge of sugar-cane country, working-class single mother Rhia (Emily Barclay) is struggling to evade debt collectors and raise three young daughters: Loni (Eloise MacLennan), Leanne (Charlie-Rose MacLennan) and Louise, aka Lou (Bell-Tindley). The eldest at 11, and hardened beyond her years, Lou blames Rhia for the departure of her father, who walked out 10 months ago and hasn’t been seen since.
Further strained by Rhia’s affair with local roughneck Cosmo (Jay Ryan), mother-daughter relations hit bottom when Rhia takes in Doyle (Hurt), her father in-law, who has Alzheimer’s. Though it’s unclear how the former British merchant seaman has remained a total stranger to his granddaughters all these years, Rhia’s motives are plain to see: Welfare worker Mrs. Marchetti (Daniela Farinacci) has promised Rhia cash in exchange for housing the old man until space opens up at a suitable facility.
Seesawing from total memory loss to flashes of clarity, Doyle turns Lou’s initial hostility around with exciting tales of his South Seas adventures. But coursing deepest in his mind are fractured memories of Annie, his late wife. Before long, Doyle “sees” Annie in Lou and imagines he is courting her all over again.
Pic’s great strength lies in how it demonstrates Lou’s decision to play along with Doyle’s fantasy. Script never strays remotely into offputting territory; Lou’s role playing is shown as an expression of the pain caused by her father’s absence and a knowing desire to punish her mother. In several exquisite scenes, such as one in which Lou accepts a flower from Doyle, Chayko hones in poetically on the girl’s transition to womanhood. A budding romance between Lou and local boy Blake (Jonathan Segat) supplies a lovely, earthy counterbalance to the dreamy side of her coming-of-age.
Switching instantly from unbridled ebullience to profound distress, Hurt has rarely been better. With acting ability to match her remarkably expressive face, Bell-Tindley is a juvenile talent to watch. Though attention will inevitably focus on her co-stars, Barclay registers just as strongly as a mother trying to do her best.
Filmed in lush environs around the northern New South Wales town of Murwillumbah, where Chayko has been based for several years, visuals are clean and attractive without indulging in tourism promotion. A nice, rustic guitar-flavored score rounds out a tech package that’s pro on a modest budget.