Girl Asleep gets bittersweet with maturity

Girl Asleep posterThere’s an arms race to adulthood when you’re a teenager. There’s a point where teens fight hard and fast to shed being viewed by the world as a child; their protest placard would be ‘we demand to be taken seriously’. Girl Asleep introduces us to Greta (Bethany Whitmore) on the cusp of her fifteenth birthday while starting at a new school. She makes friends with the chatty outcast, Elliot (Harrison Feldman), while trying to politely deflect unwanted attention from the school’s queen bees (Maiah Stewardson, Fiona Dawson and Grace Dawson). Greta’s new school anxiety hits hard when her parents (Matthew Whittet [adapting the screenplay from his theatre production] and Amber McMahon) decide to throw a party and invite her entire class. Girl Asleep exquisitely encapsulates the struggle between adolescence and maturity with wide-eyed apprehension and a little mourning for the pint-sized person we once were.

Director Rosemary Myers has Greta staring directly at the camera in a combination of shock and awe for a majority of Girl Asleep; it’s a series of portraits of a girl bracing for an invisible tsunami to hit—Whitmore personifies this trepidation with every nervous facial tic and stammer in her voice with a performance grounding the character’s virtue for the twee part of her life she adores and is afraid of losing. Greta is confronted by maturity encroaching on her with the queen bees appearing at school made up like extras from a Robert Palmer music video demanding Greta join them or perish; her sister’s boyfriend (Eamon Farren) saunters around calling her ‘babes’; and her mum demands she wears a dress to her big party. Ancillary to home and school life, Greta sees colourful creatures that look like giant finger puppets inhabiting the bush bordering her home, they lean out from behind trees and act like an envoy of Greta’s imagination.

Girl Asleep breaks out delightful moments of whimsy as Greta’s reality blurs with fantasy. The cinematography of Andrew Commis and production design of Jonathan Oxland blend magnificently and the aesthetic sits on the Napoleon Dynamite and Wes Anderson spectrum but with an Australian flavour to carve out Girl Asleep’s own identity. Meyers stages a wonderful disco sequence to introduce the guests as they arrive at the party and once the film enters the ‘asleep’ phase after Greta receives an electric shock, a Wizard of Oz style projection of the people in Greta’s life takes over the film where she must confront her fears of growing up. It culminates in a fight sequence between Greta and the queen bees in the fantastical world set to The Angles’ Take a Long Line that’s an absolute cracker. The emotional kicker, and the heart of Whittet’s screenplay, is in the final moments before Greta must return to the real party where she discovers the identity of the leader of the woodland creatures and it’s a moment that aches with all the sadness of getting older.

I loathe to use ‘coming of age’ with Girl Asleep because it meditates tenderly on the importance of personal growth without compromising on the person we once were. Girl Asleep sweetly shifts between the transitioning states of a teenage mind not quite ready to call it quits on being a kid just yet, which seems relevant no matter what your age is.

Girl Asleep is playing the Sydney Film Festival (6-19 June 2016) and the Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July-14 August 2016).

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie.