Opening with the idea that everyone is but a moment away from disaster, and craftily wresting the proposition around to a life-affirming optimism, “Look Both Ways” is an imaginative, humorous and truthful contemplation of human reaction to the inexplicable. Juggling seven major characters and their criss-crossing paths, Aussie toonster Sarah Watt’s live-action debut makes long-form ensemble drama look like a breeze. World preemed at the Adelaide fest Feb. 18, pic should see its uplifting universal language translate to extended fest exposure, glowing domestic B.O. and warm art house prospects offshore.
Set over the course of a sweltering weekend, pic tracks a collection of everyday characters confronting a variety of crises in the wake of a train accident. Attention-grabbing opening scenes derive from ideas expressed in Watt’s 2001 animated short, “Living With Happiness,” about a suburban mother imagining all sorts of disasters during an ordinary day.
As slightly dumpy Meryl (Justine Clarke) returns home from her father’s funeral, she’s compulsively drawn to tragic flights of fantasy. Visualised in short animated inserts, these involve being crushed by a plummeting train carriage, hit by a car and finally attacked by a knife-wielding maniac.
Meanwhile, across town, fortyish photographer Nick (William McInnes) is diagnosed with testicular cancer and sees his life flash by in a “Run Lola Run”-like series of rapidly edited stills. And Andy (Anthony Hayes), a journalist for the same newspaper as Nick, is confronted by part-time g.f. Anna (Lisa Flanagan) with the news she’s pregnant and her ultimatum to shape up or ship out of her life.
Drawing characters together is the death of a man hit by a train near Meryl’s house. A witness to the event, Meryl is interviewed by Andy, who turns his report into a speculative essay on the too-close-to-home topic of male depression.
Nick takes a devastating photograph of the victim’s wife, Julia (Daniela Farinacci) at the instant she’s told the shocking truth by police. Given front-page exposure by editor Phil (Andrew S. Gilbert), the snapshot of ordinary life convulsed by an unfathomable turn of events is pic’s prime visual motif and triggers characters into examining life options other than worst-case scenarios.
Among the many pleasures of Watt’s beautifully crafted screenplay is a knack for giving voice to thoughts usually left unspoken. Auds everywhere will respond to the razor wit and deep emotional chords struck as this collection of troubled souls externalise the internal and muddle their way to happier stations in life.
Watt’s ear for the truth is sharpest in the tentative romance between Nick and Meryl, whose connection is sealed in a poignant and disarmingly amusing scene in which both declare they see death in each other. Elsewhere, silence is used to maximum effect.
With virtually no dialogue and only a handful of brief scenes, the train driver (Andreas Sobik) registers as powerfully in his grief as any other character. Impact made of supporting roles underlines Watt’s skill in intertwining narrative and fluid, intuitive direction.
Performances are all spot-on, with local TV star McInnes excelling as a tightly wound man unraveling himself. Clarke is a luminous presence as the frustrated artist finding the courage to finally cry out “my politeness gene is my biggest enemy.” Tech credits are perfectly attuned to the material, with Ray Argall’s polished, unobtrusive camerawork and Denise Haratzis’ skilful editing both standouts.