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An Aboriginal prison parolee battles to get her life back on track in “Here I Am,” an uneven meller about female survival and fractured mother-daughter relationships. Set in inner-city Adelaide, scripter-helmer Beck Cole’s feature debut throws a welcome spotlight on the rarely dramatized struggles of urban Aboriginal femmes, but the tale’s emotional impact is dampened by patches of prosaic dialogue and variable perfs by an inexperienced cast. World-preemed at the Adelaide Fest, pic appears set for a modest future in local arthouses and on the festival circuit. Domestic release details are pending.

On the day of her release from a two-year stretch for what appear to be drug-related offenses, twentysomething Karen (Shai Pittman) wanders aimlessly around downtown Adelaide. With nowhere to go and no visible means of support, she accepts overnight accommodation at a cheap hotel in exchange for passionless sex with a stranger. The next morning, Karen is slapped and verbally abused by her mother, Lois (Marcia Langton), the hotel’s cleaning lady and guardian of Karen’s infant daughter, Rosie (Quinaiha Scott).

Desperate to convince Lois and the welfare authorities she’s capable of caring for Rosie, Karen checks into an Aboriginal women’s shelter in grungy Port Adelaide. The facility is run by Big Red (real-life social worker Vanessa Worrall), a tough-but-tender den mother to seven residents, including angry 50-year-old Anita (Betty Sumner); recovering drug addict Jody (Tanith Glynn-Maloney); and Skinny (Pauline Whyman), a hefty lady who takes a shine to Karen and sets her up on a date with nice guy Jeff (Bruce Carter).

Group dynamics at the shelter run hot and cold. The rough-hewn perfs are OK when the ladies shoot the breeze about day-to-day life, but the thesps are less comfortable in moments of despair and confrontational scenes involving unwelcome interventions by authority figures. Some dialogue relating to harsh statistical truths confronting indigenous Australians sounds too much like passages from a textbook.

Pic raises its game appreciably around the halfway mark when Karen’s bid to reclaim Rosie takes centerstage. Themes of rejection, forgiveness and self-esteem, and the crushing pain mothers experience when forcibly separated from their children, are productively explored as Lois grudgingly consents to a supervised reunion, followed by a near-tragedy and a cautiously optimistic conclusion. Pittman and Langton (in real life an academic and a nationally admired Aboriginal-rights advocate, respectively), are much better served by Cole’s scripting and direction in the final reels than in the earlier passages.

Rich color lensing by Cole’s husband, Warwick Thornton, features the same beautiful facial portraiture and smooth handheld movements he displayed as d.p. on his award-winning helming debut, “Samson and Delilah.” Remaining technical work reps high quality on a low budget.

Here I Am

Australia

  • Production: A Footprint Films, Transmission Films, Paramount Pictures Australia release of a Screen Australia presentation of a Scarlett Pictures production, in association with Screen NSW, South Australian Film Corp., Adelaide Film Festival, Australian Broadcasting Corp. (International sales: Scarlett Pictures, Sydney.) Produced by Kath Shelper. Directed, written by Beck Cole.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Warwick Thornton; editor, Roland Gallois; music, Cliff Bradley; music supervisor, Kim Green; production designer, Sam Wilde; art director, Chris Jobson; costume designer, Heather Wallace; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Sullivan; associate producer, Fiona Pakes; assistant director, Richard McGrath. Reviewed at Adelaide Film Festival (competing), Feb. 26, 2011. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: With: Shai Pittman, Marcia Langton, Quinaiha Scott, Bruce Carter, Pauline Whyman, Vanessa Worrall, Tanith Glynn-Maloney, Betty Sumner, Yanja Thompson, Misty Sparrow, Rhiannon Sparrow, Carol Collins.
  • Music By: