Australian actor-turned-director Steve Vidler’s “Blackrock” explores the impact of a brutal crime on a small community and, in particular, on the sole witness as he wrestles with his conscience and the laws of loyalty considered sacred among male teenagers. Adapted by “Lorenzo’s Oil” scripter Nick Enright from his own play, which in turn was inspired by the rape and murder of an adolescent girl in the coastal Oz city of Newcastle, this bruising, high-decibel drama should score with kids the protagonists’ age, but its soap-opera-style plotting and overwritten dialogue will limit wider acceptance.
The story centers on 17-year-old Jared (Laurence Breuls), whose divorced mother, Diane (Linda Cropper), has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is finding it impossible to tell her uncommunicative son. When Jared’s best friend and surf guru, Ricko (Simon Lyndon), returns to town, Jared throws a welcome-home bash at the local surf club.
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Wandering down to the rocks to clear his head during the out-of-control party, Jared spies a couple of guests making out on the beach, and then stands by helplessly as a group of his schoolmates bust in on the action, beating and repeatedly raping the girl, Tracey (Boyana Novakovitch). The news the following morning that Tracey has been found dead sparks a storm of media attention and moral crusades against lax parenting, unsupervised partying, teen promiscuousness and drug use.
Unfocused anger and blame divide the working-class community, while Jared’s failure to intervene and save the girl’s life leaves him overcome by self-loathing and even more distant from his mother and friends. When Ricko’s involvement in the events that followed the rape becomes clear, Jared’s conflicting allegiances push him into a tight corner.
Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of Enright’s script is its consideration of “dobbing” (Australian vernacular for ratting on someone) as one of the ultimate evils in tight-knit youth circles, especially among boys. Macho attitudinizing also comes into play via the view of Tracey’s hand in her fate and the perception that getting drunk and wild is a guys-only domain.
But these angles are dulled by stilted dialogue that spells out far too explicitly the film’s psychological p.o.v. The narrative fabric is weakened by a TV cop-drama approach to the murder investigation, by cliches such as the depiction of tabloid news hounds as vultures and by the additional baggage of the mother-son conflict, which is arguably the drama’s most unconvincing and distracting element.
Vidler has all the right visual instincts, and with skilled backup from d.p. Martin McGrath, he displays an evocative feel for the Newcastle locations, playing up the contrasts between industrial steel town, bland suburbia and spectacular beaches. Surf footage shot by George Greenough also is impressive. The pounding soundtrack makes extensive use of rock songs without sacrificing dialogue clarity.
Paradoxically for a director with Vidler’s background, one of the shortcomings here is an inconsistent connection with the actors, many of whom appear a little self-conscious. The main exception is newcomer Breuls, who keeps his intensity cranked to just the right level, making it easy to empathize with the character. Lyndon (cast as Jared in the original Sydney Theatre Company production but considered too old for the film role) also contributes edgy work; likewise David Field as Tracey’s grieving father and Rebecca Smart as her tough friend, angered and unhinged by the loss