Looking for Alibrandi Review

Josie Alibrandi (Pia Miranda) is seventeen. She feels out of place as a scholarship student at a girls' school and her well-heeled schoolmates don't hesitate to remind her that she's a "wog". But then she doesn't feel she belongs with her Sicilian family either. She's got the HSC (Higher School Certificate) ahead of her and John (Matthew Newton), the boy of her dreams, seems out of reach. Her mother Christina (Greta Scacchi) bore her out of wedlock and now her real father Michael Andretti (Anthony LaPaglia) is back in town. It's going to be a year where Josie has to sort out a lot of things, uncover a few secrets, and find out where she belongs.

Melina Marchetta's novel was an Australian bestseller (unpublished in the UK, however) and has the dubious distinction of being the book most stolen from school libraries. This film version, in an effective example of counterprogramming, opened on the same weekend as Gladiator and more than held its own against Ridley Scott's Roman epic. It was nominated for nine Australian Film Institute Awards and won five: Best Film, Best Actress (Miranda), Best Supporting Actress (Scacchi), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. Although its subject matter – a teenage girl's coming of age – is certainly familiar, Looking for Alibrandi proves once again that you can make a film for and about teenagers with plenty of wit, style and intelligence. It went straight to video/DVD in the UK, which is our loss.

The immigrant experience is a not infrequent theme in Australian films. Recently it's turned up in drama (Greek-Australian director Ana Kokkinos's Head On, about a Greek-Australian gay man) and broad comedy (The Wogboy). It's central to Looking for Alibrandi too, and certainly the small details ring true. When Josie retaliates and breaks a racist senator's daughter's nose with a book you want to cheer. Some early fantasy sequences seem a little forced, but director Kate Woods (a TV veteran making her feature debut) keeps the film moving at a good pace with a nice eye for Sydney locations. She and Marchetta (adapting her own novel) deftly negotiate a change of tone at the halfway point, when someone Josie is close to suddenly and unexpectedly dies. It's at this turning point, which totally wrongfoots the audience, that the film really takes hold, deepening what up to that point has been pleasant but rather lightweight.

Woods is helped immensely by her cast. Greta Scacchi may be British, but she has Italian ancestry and a serviceable Australian accent on her side. She gives a solid performance, though I'll have to ungallantly say that she doesn't really pass for the thirty-four her character is meant to be. If you're familiar with Anthony LaPaglia from American films such as The Client, you may be surprised to see him here (and to notice that he's put on some weight) – but he's actually a native of Melbourne. In the supporting cast, Elena Cotta is excellent as Josie's Nonna (grandmother) who has a secret of her own. Matthew Newton does well as the good-looking but strangely aloof John, as does Kick Gurry as Jacob, whose attentions on Josie she can't really reciprocate. But if the film belongs to anyone, it's Pia Miranda. This is her film debut, though she had a long-running role on TV in Neighbours. She gives a performance of quite some range: at times defiant, at times hesitant, not always sure of herself. It's a winning performance that rings absolutely true, in an engaging film that's certainly worth an hour and a half of your time.

Roadshow's DVDs deservedly have a good reputation, and their release of Looking for Alibrandi, which is encoded for Region 4 only, certainly doesn't let the side down. The picture is an anamorphic transfer at 16:9, which seems like the correct ratio (presumably 1.75:1 in cinemas). It's bright, sharp and colourful, with strong blacks and good shadow detail. It's everything you should expect a new film to be, and its only let down by some very minor and not distracting artefacts (the usual shimmering Venetian blinds).

The film has a busy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which makes good use of the surrounds (such as a nightclub scene). The film is primarily in English, but some Italian dialogue is subtitled. These subtitles are optional, and are distinguished from the hard-of-hearing subtitles by being in italics. Note that you can only switch on the hard-of-hearing subtitles from the menu, not from the remote. There are twenty chapter stops, which is a little ungenerous.

The commentary features Kate Woods, Melina Marchetta and producer Robyn Kershaw. It's an informative track with few dead spots, though Woods and Kershaw have noticeably more to say than Marchetta. The one deleted scene has a choice of production audio or commentary. In this scene, Josie and friend are attacked by a couple of teenage boys; Jacob helps fight them off, which leads to his and Josie's first kiss. It's easy to see why this scene was removed, though the commentary does explain: the scene simply seems to belong to a different film. It's quite violent and, if included, would have upped the number of "fucks" quite considerably from the four left in the film. The scene is preceded by a caption apologising for the low resolution of the scene: dark and grainy with lots of artefacts, but still anamorphic. The trailer (which runs 2:06) is also anamorphic, and also considerably washed out compared to the feature. Cast and crew biographies are fuller than we normally get, though still obviously lifted from production notes. I'm not sure that Scacchi really counts as "one of Australia's best-known actresses". We also get storyboards and script excerpts for six scenes (anamorphic too), with the director's handwritten notes, ending with an advertisement for the published screenplay. Don't view this extra before watching the film if you want to avoid spoilers.

Other extras are fillers. I've never really seen the point of photo galleries, at least not ones without larger pictures and a better arrangement than a simple back-and-forth navigation. That's no joke when there are forty pictures. Finally, there are videos for two songs featured in the film: "Weir" by Killing Heidi (3:36) and "Teenager of the Year" by Lo-tel (4:28). The latter includes scenes from the film. I suppose these are nice to have if you like the music, though both sound like bland pop to me. Like the other extras, both videos and the photo gallery are anamorphic.

Minor reservations apart, Looking for Alibrandi is a worthwhile film given an impressive DVD package.

(This review was originally written in January 2001. Since then, a UK Region 2 edition has been released on a budget label. I haven't seen that DVD, but on past form you can expect a bare-bones disc with a full-frame transfer and a 2.0 soundtrack. The Region 4 remains the version of choice.)

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Last updated: 28/06/2018 11:02:43

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