Signaling first-time feature director Christine Jeffs as a promising talent, “Rain” is an evocative mood piece, enriched by gorgeous visuals, about the dissolution of a marriage as a mother reaches out for excitement and escape and her 13-year-old daughter explores her own budding sexuality. While the script, adapted by Jeffs from Kirsty Gunn’s novel, is a little thin and its climactic tragedy far from unpredictable, the director and accomplished cinematographer John Toon communicate a powerful sense of a time, place and atmosphere that holds attention throughout. The delicate drama should segue from festival screenings into limited arthouse dates in select markets.
Set in the summer of 1972 at an underpopulated seaside spot where adolescent protagonist Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki) and her family have rented a holiday cottage, the film swiftly establishes the mellow feel, lazy rhythms and agreeable idleness of the place. Janey and her kid brother Jim (Aaron Murphy) spend their days swimming, fishing and playing on the beach, while their mother Kate (Sarah Peirse) and father Ed (Alistair Browning) laze around sipping bourbon and preparing for boozy parties at night with other vacationers.
Even before her father becomes aware of it, Janey learns of the affair between her mother and Cady (Marton Csokas), an itinerant photographer who moors his boat nearby, representing the freedom Kate feels her life now lacks. But rather than confront her mother with the knowledge of her indiscretions, Janey dances teasingly around the subject. Ed, however, becomes increasingly hurt and depressed as he watches the distance grow between himself and Kate, but is unable to address the problem directly.
Indifferent to the advances of a local boy her own age, Janey instead enters naively and without much forethought into competition with her mother for Cady’s attention. The climate of foreboding is efficiently established and sustained albeit with too little plot muscle, but the drama builds eventually to a resonant conclusion as Janey’s actions bring terrible, unforeseen consequences for the family.
Fulford-Wierzbicki skillfully negotiates the balance between girlish innocence, headstrong attitude and the burgeoning awareness of how to use her sexuality, while Peirse (“Heavenly Creatures”) conveys a poignant sense of an unsettled woman no longer getting anything out of her marriage. Young Murphy is a delight, bringing fresh, natural spark to his every scene.
Jeffs’ overuse of slow-motion sequences perhaps betrays her experience for the past five years making commercials. (Prior to that, her 1994 short film “Stroke” won praise at Cannes and Sundance.) But generally, the direction is mature and controlled, not just in visual terms but in the assured handling of the actors. Like so many New Zealand filmmakers, Jeffs and d.p. Toon display a remarkable feel for nature and landscape and for the soft, glowing light particular to parts of the Southern Hemisphere.
An eclectic range of music is widely and effectively used, from period pop to lovely original compositions by former Crowded House and Split Enz band member Neil Finn, working with Edmund McWilliams.