Directed by Jeremy Cumpston
Written by Hal Cumpston
The teen comedy has been a highly successful film genre for a long time, delivered faithfully via Hollywood and to great effect in films such as the American Pie franchise and Mean Girls. But other than popping up here and there as kids of the leads, teens generally don’t get much of a look-in in Australian films. At least not in the authentic and in-your-face way that new indie film, Bilched showcases. Impressively written and directed by 19 year-old Hal Cumpston, Bilched takes us right into the centre of Australian teen life in Bondi, Sydney. The film opens on a very satisfying sweeping aerial shot of the iconic Bondi cliffs and beach and we’re quickly zapped into Hal’s world as he attends an audition for the prestigous National Academy of Performing Arts.
Hal dries mid-speech at a revealing moment and his auditioner questions his true acting chops: “Do you have the capacity to reveal your inner most truth?”. Perhaps this is the trigger for Hal’s anti-hero journey. We then follow Hal and his besties in their final days of year 12 as they attempt to dust off mounting graduation pressure with booze, drugs, surfing and girls – all the requisite stuff of late teen angst and bravado. Hal and his side-kick Matt go through all the necessary preparations to get absolutely smashed, stocking up on beers which mysteriously go missing, and decide to gate-crash a house party being held by Ella, an ‘eastern suburbs princess’ who engages in regular gender bashing clashes with Hal.
Written in only 10 days, Cumpston has his prints stamped firmly all over the film. Using his own name for the lead character, he clearly wants to give us a snapshot of life for Australian teenagers nearing the end of schooling and the clash of socio-economic classes that are part of eastern suburban life. Essentially aimed at 16 year old boys, the film is dominated by the messyness of bursting testosterone that doesn’t know what to do with itself. We have back-slapping encouragement of chick scoring, earnest and painful pursuit of alchohic beverage, the sloshy sport of beer sculling games, quick and frantic morning wanks before everyone wakes up, and nasty, critical jabs at our buddies that makes for real friendship. All the wonderful stuff of typical male adolescence.
The non-actors peforming the young roles of the film give it it’s messy realness. Hal Cumpston is dry and droll and dripping with sarcasm as the the lead anti-hero, Hal. Interestingly he shines and captures attention in a far more arresting way in the audition monologues that top and tail the film, than in his role as Hal himself. Otis Pavlovic flashes moments of Heath Ledger like screen charisma as Hal’s younger brother Joe, and promises some real future acting potential. Other characters such as Hal’s two younger brothers seem to be afterthoughts that only serve to muddle and confuse the story arc.
The female characters are somewhat underdeveloped sidelines that are treated as strange, unreachable aliens – and rightfully so at this young age when the real world outside of school awaits to educate us in all things relationship. Ella acts as an interesting contrast of eastern suburban status against the grungey Hal and his footy mates. “Do I need to grow a dick to earn respect from you?”, she asks – but it’s not so clear as to why she needs his respect in the first place.
The film is speckled with cameos by familiar Australian acting alumni such as Rhys Muldoon and Jeremy Sims. Possibly the single most stand out moment for me is Alex Williamson’s moment as Hal’s quirky, oddball drama teacher, Mr. Lamb. Mr. Lamb gives Hal a “super weird, vague pep talk thing” which is hilarious in it’s random physicality and OCD-like arrangement of school chairs. The characters lack a compelling drive forward which unfortunately turns the film into a sloppy documentary-like snapshot of Aussie teenagers boozing it up and gate-crashing a party. While there seems to be lots of typical male bonding going on, the characters themselves don’t bond or connect deeply enough for us to invest in the intended emotional payoffs at the end. In many ways, Bilched doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s a mishmash that wants to be everything at once – a teen-comedy, a commentary on socio-economic status, an existenstial search for one’s own truth, and an attempt at heart-soaring romance thrown in at the end.
The often awkwardly stilted dialogue makes for some cringe-worthy moments (with lines such as “We broke up – I think we should stay broken up” and “Why don’t you and your micro-dick go and get fucked!?”) but it clearly and endearingly comes straight from the mind of a 17 year old. After all, this is arguably the most awkward and stilted period of our lives – shown here unabashedly. Shane Kavanagh’s cinematography gives the low-budget film a boost with some breathtaking aerial shots, and stunning evening light – making us feel the essence of Bondi beach life. Locals will find it satisfying to see their much loved seaside vista heavily showcased in the film.
Directed by Hal’s father Jeremy Cumpston, Bilched is grass roots film-making made by people who are living and breathing this suburban life and we feel the integrity in this worthy family effort. It’s really inspiring to see young film-makers diving in and telling stories. What’s fantastic about this film is the authenticity it depicts in Sydneysider life. The strength of Cumpston’s brave venture is its rough edges and ‘jump in the deep end’ approach which fittingly works in creating a niched story that will undoubtly be very relatable to Australian youth.
Review by Nick Dale.