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« CHASING COMETS | Main | THE MEG »
Wednesday
Aug152018

BOOK WEEK

Stars: Alan Dukes, Airlie Dodds, Susan Prior, Rose Riley, Rhys Muldoon, Pippa Grandison, Thuso Lekwape, Toby Schmitz, Khan Chittenden, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Jolene Anderson, Tiriel Mora, Dean Kyrwood, Vanessa Buckley and Steve Le Marquand.
Writer/director: Heath Davis

WORLD PREMIERE: Melbourne International Film Festival, Wednesday August 15, 2018.

Rating: 4/5

That most engaging, enraging cinematic archetype – the boozy, lecherous but lovable literary talent gone off the rails – is given an Antipodean spin in Heath Davis’ charmingly roguish, bittersweet working-class drama, Book Week. Despite borrowing high-brow observations of the writer’s lot in life from such names as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Bukowski, Davis’ occasionally coarse but lovably melancholy character study is a crowdpleasingly broad tale of personal redemption.

Lifelong support player Alan Dukes masterfully crafts a career-defining lead turn as Nicholas Cutler, the flailing author/reluctant academic wallowing in egotism, irresponsibility and mounting panic. If the actor starts the film walking in the footsteps of Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys (2000) and Tom Conti’s Gowan McGland from Reuben Reuben (1983), Duke soon charts his own, equally wonderful acting path, resulting in a performance every bit as heartwarming/breaking as those revered characterisations.

Cutler once wrote a book that did well, but is now a high school teacher overseeing teens typically dismissive of literary greatness; as he tries to awaken in them a modicum of passion for Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, the students text, “Cutler is a dick.” And they are mostly right; it is a credit to Duke’s leading-man likability (the actor resembling a seen-better-days version of Richard Dreyfuss, by way of Bill Murray’s observational wryness) that Cutler does not come off as too pathetic or wantonly self-destructive to empathise with.

Over the titular period (an Aussie tradition created to drum up interest in reading and usually involving a celebratory dress-up day), Cutler remains either inebriated or trying to be, leading to clashes with upstart student-author Melanie (Rose Riley); drunken sex with free-spirited placement teacher and kindred spirit, Sarah (a terrific Airlie Dodds); inappropriate complications with age-appropriate co-worker Ms. Issen (Susan Prior, wonderful); and, a destined-for-disaster carers role, keeping wayward teen Tyrell (Thuso Lekwape) out of ‘juvie.’

The other key subplot tracks Cutler’s re-emergence as a writer, albeit of a zombie lark that reeks of career desperation, and his anxiety levels ahead of its not-quite-confirmed publication. This narrative strand, with some contributions from Rhys Muldoon, Toby Schmitz and Khan Chittenden, pitched pretty highly. Solid bit-part thesping from the likes of Jolene Anderson, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Pippa Grandison and Tiriel Mora is all of the highest quality, although the film certainly feels overpopulated at times; the small-town complications and interactions occasionally echo beats of TV series formatting (with such a transition certainly viable, as there is the pulse of David Duchovny’s Californication cad Hank Moody in Cutler’s ways and a roster of characters ripe for expansion).

Book Week is most enthralling when Dukes is allowed to delve into Cutler’s darker psyche; several of the film’s best moments are when the actor has the frame to himself, or indulges in introspective angst with Dodd’s Sarah (a breakthrough role for the wonderful actress). Heath Davis announced himself as a skilful observer of damaged talents with his 2016 feature debut Broke, and his similarly-themed sophomore feature is as good a follow-up effort as the Australian industry has seen in some time. For an auteur so well versed in the existential misery of the ‘fallen idol’, Davis has to date fashioned two entirely winning films.

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