From grindhouse to arthouse, movies have cast a sympathetic and often voyeuristic eye over the troubles of young women forced into prostitution. John Duigan’s latest Oz feature, the well-mounted “Careless Love,” adds to the call-girl catalogue with an earnest if somewhat schematic tale of a college girl-turned-hooker. Direction and HD lensing are solid, but thesp Nammi Le sometimes buckles under the weight of the entire, occasionally dubious, endeavor. Mid-May local release across Australia’s small arthouse network will garner minimal B.O., but Duigan’s rep and sexy theme will lure fests.
One of Australia’s longest surviving indie auteurs, Duigan’s work has examined the moral and ethical dilemmas of youth since his 16mm debut, “Mouth to Mouth,” leapt out of Melbourne’s grungy 1970s film scene. In his more adult-oriented efforts (“Sirens,” “The Leading Man”), the helmer has examined sexuality and relationships, and how one can sour the other. In this outing, Duigan blends his favorite themes, to mixed results.
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Smart, pretty, Sydney-raised university student Linh (Le) hails from a conservative Vietnamese family, but for reasons not revealed until later reels, she has turned to prostitution. Pic’s first hour has an episodic feel as she travels from gig to gig meeting a variety of johns, from oddball fatherly introverts to post-Iraq American spies. Between tricks, she’s ferried around Sydney with illegal Thai immigrant Mint (Ivy Mak, terrific) and their driver Dion (David Field, always reliable), the only ones who know of her double life.
Linh’s separate worlds start to converge when a handsome drama student (Andrew Hazzard) takes a romantic interest in her, but turns out to be friends with a fellow student (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) who once hired Linh to bed a mutual buddy. Most of the script’s scenarios and outcomes are familiar, but some moments possess real-life resonance. Others, such as a scene where marauding johns suddenly respect the protag as a woman because her accent is Australian and not Vietnamese, ring phony, as does the contrivance of trying to create a narrative out of Linh’s overlapping lives.
Duigan, always ready to take a chance on undiscovered talent (Thandie Newton in 1991’s “Flirting”) or underexposed ones (Jon Bon Jovi, 1996’s “The Leading Man”), here sees relative newcomer Le give an endearing if sometimes wobbly perf that inspires fondness, though her working-girl character’s life fails the plausibility test. Peter O’Brien’s American mercenary feels likewise fantastical, but the Oz actor does well under the role’s limitations. Pic’s thesping highlight is the bona fide intimacy between Mak’s prostitute and Field’s driver, despite limited screentime.
Working on a tight budget, the helmer delivers an elegant package. But despite his care with landscapes and mise-en-scene, his tendency to let anecdotal sequences run on too long, as well as the persistently on-the-nose dialogue, undermine his efforts.
Kathryn Milliss’ sharp HD lensing is exemplified by one of the most gorgeous opening images in an Oz-shot pic: a passing ferry in Sydney Harbor on a breathtaking, stormy evening. Other tech credits are likewise robust.