Now more than ever Australian feature film projects are scrutinized by the penny-pushing jabs of judicious market reasoning. Amid mounting concerns for the commercial viability of each Australian film and the perpetual fear that each film won’t be able to sustain its finances - and that in-bred premonition of failure is indicative of the fickle nature of box office support on their home ground - it is usually simply not enough collateral for an Aussie film to pitch to specific demographic or exploit a singular concept. The growing pressures weighing on AFC sponsored filmmakers, in particular, dictate that each feature needs to be inherently exportable: promoting the idea of a slew of market-friendly films that, in theory, can be buoyed by transnational appeal.
The ultimate danger in that line of thinking is of gross simplification: of toning down complex considerations into baubles and novelties. It also promotes the Hollywood studio system’s general moviemaking ethos, which is to bombard audiences with easily digestible products designed for universal consumption but stripped of individualistic style and verse.
For every Crocodile Dundee (1986) that makes it - for the films that successfully usurp rural Australian stereotypes for the appeasement of the masses - countless others fall into shambles: potentially gob-smacked by crude, inaccurate and polarising characterisations. The Crocodile Dundee films gleefully defined Australians as a race of people who look, sound and act like crude jungle tour guides. The last thing the Australian film industry needs at this this point in time, after all, is a new crop of bogus films bursting at the seams with plebeian Aussie idiosyncrasies.
Oyster Farmer, the first feature from award-winning short film maker Anna Reeves, was co-financed by a UK production company but is a distinctly Australian production. Reeves, who also penned the film’s enchanting screenplay, embraces a marketable concept - fundamentally an occupation and a location - and shapes it into a thing of beauty and naturalness, doing so without a trace of caricature or derelict vernacular.
Not long after we meet Jack Flange (Alex O’Lachlan) he successfully robs a couple of money couriers of $150,000 by dressing in a raspberry flavoured edible face mask and assaulting them with a frozen lobster. Jack stuffs the cash in an envelope and mails it to himself at his new location working at oyster farm. His boss is Brownie (David Field) whose enterprise is on the brink of bankruptcy. Brownie’s wife Trish (Kerry Armstrong), who he is keen to reconcile with but clueless as to how to do it, is an oyster-whisper: a woman with peculiar oyster soothing abilities. Brownie’s father is a chatty and lovable Irish man who is trying his best to support his son’s personal and financial complications. Skippy (the legendary Jack Thompson) is a drunken ex-Vietnam hermit and the unspoken leader of a small crew of secluded middle aged misfits.
When days turn into weeks and Jack’s stolen bounty still hasn’t arrived, he begins to suspect that one of the locals may have snatched his loot. This crime-gone-wrong shtick is a plot device rather than a sub-plot, and it very effectively launches interest in the story. The cast, led by fresh-faced newcomer Alex O’Lachlan, whose amiable presence ties together the story’s tangents, are universally strong: David Field, Jack Thompson and Jim Norton especially shine in supporting roles.
Nurtured by Grace’s warmth and affection for her characters the film has a softly spoken grace in the way it moves, as it pastes together locations and characters into a ponderous blend of entertainment and drama, devoid of high-brow pretension. The script, largely stripped of erroneous chatter, swirls around the lives of the dwellers inhabiting the land surrounding the Hawkesbury River in NSW, each bound by their own stake on the landscape. Nobody - not even the inebriated hobos clutching onto VB cans and murmuring gibberish - get out of the frame without alluding to a deeper ideology.