Eccentrics and redemption on the half-shell
Seasoned veterans of the Seattle International Film Festival will get all glowy when they settle in with this offbeat Australian import...
Special to The Seattle Times
Seasoned veterans of the Seattle International Film Festival will get all glowy when they settle in with this offbeat Australian import, whether they saw it at this year's fest or not. "Oyster Farmer" has that familiar SIFF ring of idiosyncratic artiness, from its spectacular location and heavy-handed craft, to an indie-spirited script filled with an array of precisely drawn characters.
Those highlights also point to some of the reasons it fails to satisfy. There's just a little too much prettiness and plot to compete with all the eccentric behavior of the background population.
Debut writer/director Anna Reeves certainly put a great deal of care into her story of a city boy from Sydney thrust into the fish-out-of-water setting of rural folk inhabiting the bucolic twists and turns of New South Wales' Hawkesbury River.
Or, in this case, oyster-out-of-water, since mollusk mining is how many of the characters earn their meager living. Oysters also represent the socioeconomic basis of life in a ragtag community that has the feel of being lost in time, even though it's just an hour north of bustling Sydney Harbor.
"Oyster Farmer," with Alex O'Lachlan, Diana Glenn, David Field, Kerry Armstrong, Jim Norton. Written and directed by Anna Reeves. 91 minutes. Not rated, suitable for mature audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.
That's kind of the point for Jack (Alex O'Lachlan), a 24-year-old scoundrel, drifter and petty thief who's using the warren of secluded piers, shacks and oyster beds that dot the river as his hideout. Having hooked up as an apprentice to a crotchety oyster man and his even crotchetier father, Jack prowls the waterways finding laughs, love, an assortment of grizzled coots, cootesses and — of course — himself before the movie's perfectly picturesque end.
Plot details pile up on the front end as we see how Jack robbed an armored car at a Sydney fish market (disguised in a fruit-leather mask and armed with a frozen lobster), then mailed the money to himself way upriver. It was a crime of altruism, however, since Jack's plan also has him sequestered close to a private hospital where his sister is recovering from an auto accident. If the money is for her medical bills, does that make Jack more sympathetic?
Not necessarily. It takes a lot of awkward scenario transitions to get Jack onto any kind of straight and narrow. In between there's revenge plotting when the money goes missing, a dog murder, steamy sex among the mangroves, lessons about the art of raising oysters and a few too many lazy days down the sweltering river.
A large troupe of Australian actors and genuine river natives provide spots of terrific acting. With unfortunate names like Brownie, Mumbles and Slug, they're often reduced to simply inhabiting caricatures in spite of the script's best intentions.
Jack's love interest is, ahem, Pearl (Diana Glenn), a gem-in-the-rough whose primary quirk is a collection of inappropriate designer shoes. There's also Skippy (Jack Thompson), a scary codger who spends his days napping, fishing, swilling beer and playing cards with a gang of fellow Vietnam vets, and whose motivations are as inscrutable as his character's place in this movie.
But despite a nagging disjointedness, the peaks and eddies of "Oyster Farmer" are a lulling, often lovely journey to an enchanting place.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org