There's a previous model for the type of film Pawno is, a very imposing predecessor from 1989 in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Like that film, Pawno is an ensemble piece, set on a hot day in a multicultural neighbourhood: Footscray, a a suburb of Melbourne, with the temperature hitting forty degrees. Also like that film, it is mostly set in a place which acts as a focal point for the characters we see who work there, and who stop by now and again – not here a pizzeria but a pawnbroker's (pawno), run by Les (John Brumpton), assisted by Danny (Damian Hills, also the scriptwriter).
There the similarity ends. Do the Right Thing dovetails its multiple plot lines, the heat of the day giving the film a pressure-cooker intensity, on its way to a culminating act of violence. While this film does have its own act of violence, that's at the halfway mark, and is something of a miscalculation. Also, the racial tensions of Lee's film are downplayed in Hill's script and Paul Ireland's direction. Pawno is, rather, a comedy-drama, and it's the characters who make the film for the just under an hour and a half we spend with them.
These include Paige (Daniel Frederiksen), a transgender parent, quick with retorts to barracking in the streets but very vulnerable. There is also Lai (Ngoc Phan), who runs the nearby Vietnamese eatery and is Les's friend with benefits. We also meet grieving mother Jennifer (Kerry Armstrong), Tony (John Orcsik), who accidentally leaves the memory card in a camera he pawns, with embarrassing results, and Harsha (Mark Silveira), who was a dentist back in India but now earns his living as a cabbie. Two mates hanging out, Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith), act as a chorus. There's also a cute young girl busking with a ukulele. If there is a throughline, it's Danny's tentative romance with Kate (Maeve Dermody), who works in the local bookshop.
John Brumpton is an actor who has been around since the late 1980s, with roles in amongst others, the also Footscray-set Romper Stomper. Here given a rare leading role, he underplays beautifully, Les's gruff exterior hiding considerable empathy. There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, made up of others who have been around for a while (Damian Hill, Maeve Dermody) to newcomers.
I've mentioned one film from the latter-day golden age of US independents, and Pawno harks back to other films from that time, such as Clerks and Slacker, in its loosely-wound narrative and emphasis on characters and their interaction rather than an overarching plot. It's an Australian independent – logos for Screen Australia and the state film board, which in this case would have been Film Victoria – are absent. It's funny, poignant and charming.