Wide awake to the wonder, terror and giddy confusion of being a 14-year-old adolescent in 1970s Australia — or anywhere at any time, for that matter — Rosemary Myers’ “Girl Asleep” is a strange, savvy, big-hearted teen adventure that feels perfectly pitched to its target audience as well as those of all ages in search of something unquestionably unique. In the wake of the film’s high-profile European premiere on opening night of the Berlinale’s Generation 14plus program, like-minded sidebars at fests will come calling, with positive word of mouth and laudatory critical attention rousing sales.
On the eve of her 15th birthday, settling into a new suburb and enduring the garish uniforms of a new school, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore, an embryonic Terri Garr with freckles) has a lot on her plate and even more on her mind. Alone in the schoolyard, she is immediately befriended by the frizzy-haired and loquacious Elliott (Harrison Feldman, either consciously or probably intuitively channeling Eddie Deezen). Unfortunately, she also attracts the attention of a trio of mean girls led by the icy Jade (Maiah Stewardson), who pluck her away from the crestfallen Elliott.
Not that Greta’s home life is any more serene. Dad Conrad (Matthew Whittet, who adapted his play for the screen) struts around in tight satin gym shorts, whilst eccentric mom Janet (the scene-stealing Amber McMahon) is fond of dressing to match her cuisine and staring wide-eyed at Greta with the undisguised expectation of moms the world over. Older sister Genevieve, caught in her own growing pains with sultry b.f. Adam (Eamon Farren), is nothing but hostile.
Just as Greta mends fences with Elliott, Conrad and Janet secretly decide to throw their daughter a birthday party and promptly paper the school with invitations. Greta is at once appalled and confusingly intrigued by this social opportunity, formidable as it is. These being budding teenagers, the party comes with an understandable element of trauma: After a hilarious musical number that sees guests showcasing their disco moves on arrival, Elliott declares his love with cringe-worthy sincerity, and Jade shows up with her twin minions to play Greta a song she’s composed with the catchy title “You’ve Got No Tits.” This sends Greta to her room, where the absence of her cherished music box is the final straw that sends her into exhausted slumber.
At this point things turn decidedly Lynchian. Greta wanders into the forest behind her house, where a series of fantastical beings appear to her, as do Whittet and McMahon in very different incarnations. After being saved from unseen wolves by the mythological warrior woman the Huldra (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), Greta returns to her bedroom to find Adam, in the guise of French lounge singer Benoit Tremet, coming on to her in Elliott’s voice.
If all this sounds like an unholy blending of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Where the Wild Things” Are by way of Wes Anderson, nothing could be further from the truth. What steers the film clear of sensationalist Australian Gothic is its genesis and stated intent. First-time feature director Myers and debuting screenwriter Whittet first mounted the play at Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre as the third part in a rites-of-passage trilogy, and Myers pointedly references child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s theory of adolescence as a forest through which one must pass through. Seen in this light, the film, with its musical numbers, visual gags and mild erotica, takes on new gravitas and urgency beneath the surface.
Whitmore and Feldman give performances that are nothing short of courageous, while the supporting players, many of whom worked on the stage show, remain fully committed to the spirit of the proceedings. Tech credits are as unique and pungent as the world they create. D.p. Andrew Commis (“Beautiful Kate,” “The Daughter”) shoots fluidly in a 4:3 aspect ratio that fits the material perfectly, while the true star of the production may be Jonathon Oxlade, who does yeoman’s work as production and costume designer.
A product of the Adelaide Film Festival’s Hive Fund initiative, “Girl Asleep” is an exuberant example of imaginative filmmaking that takes its cues from imagination and talent — with nary a focus group in sight.