Though the execution lacks polish and a sense of creating a daringly original perspective, the central themes of director Belinda Chayko’s Lou resolutely come to the fore. This is the story of an 11 year old entangled in trying domestic circumstances in rural New South Wales. Lou (Lily Bell-Tindley), stuck with two younger siblings and a troubled young mother, Rhia (Emily Barclay), who is struggling to make ends meet, seems to be drifting through life, the departure of her father creating a troubling and hurtful absence that remains a bone of contention between the two.
Life is not easy for Rhia; there are wolves on her doorstep in the form of creditors looking to recoup a series of debts. To allow them entry would be the first stage of a more meaningful dissemination – one that strips them of material possessions and becomes, in turn, a painful admission of utter helplessness. Such an outcome is unthinkable to Rhia, whose current boyfriend seems another misguided diversion sought only to distract her from inner demons, including the parental responsibility she clearly struggles with.
The father of Rhia’s ex-partner, Doyle (John Hurt), an aged and infirm old navy man, enters their lives, requiring temporary care before a more permanent home can be found. Doyle, suffering from Alzheimer’s, proves to be a handful; prone to incoherence and fiery outbursts, he requires far more specialised care than the struggling family can provide. The unenviable responsibility of keeping track of him is handed to Lou who Doyle soon mistakes for his long dead wife. The nostalgia of dissolving memories means little to an 11 year old, but she soon begins to understand the significance of humouring his failing mind.
Occasionally Lou falls into cliché, especially when overreaching to strike the most obvious expressive notes. The friction between Lou and Rhia culminates in Lou declaring “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” Feeling lifted from any number of films in which teenage conflict and the meaning of parental sacrifice are central to the drama, this moment rings falsely even as it hones the conflict to a sharpened emotional edge. Barclay, so stunning in Suburban Mayhem (2006), feels like a weak link; her portrayal of Rhia’s emotional turmoil is generally less than convincing.
There’s not a great deal for the usually wonderful Hurt to work with here, though he and his director deserve credit for providing Doyle with a hardened edge. He could so easily have been a pathetic, forlorn figure whose every utterance becomes a manipulative device to obtain an expected response. The crotchety Doyle does struggle to win our sympathy but this is more due to lack of a back story of any real depth to help signpost the few experiences his failing memory clings to. Visually, Chayko uses the burning of nearby sugar cane fields as an effective metaphor for the slowly unspooling mind of Doyle who is often seem gazing on in silent consternation. The mild tenderness that develops between Lou and her frail grandfather is welcome but feels mildly contrived; subservient more to the narrative than to any naturalistic necessity.
Lou (2010) – only Chayko’s second feature and first in a decade - is the type of modest, small-scale film destined to be humbled with faint praise. There’s an impression of incompleteness somehow, of sketchy characterisation that would have benefitted greatly from fleshing out these roles. Despite the lack of poignant insights or a cathartic climax this is nevertheless a very decent second effort from Chayko who’s coaxed a fine performance out of Bell-Tindley especially.