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Saturday, 4 November 2017

Three Summers

(M) ★★★

Director: Ben Elton.

Cast: Rebecca Breeds, Robert Sheehan, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, John Waters, Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell, Deborah Mailman, Jacqueline McKenzie, Peter Rowsthorn.

"Ok, Reign In Blood in D, one, two, three, four..."
Whether you love or loathe this movie (or are somewhere in between like me), you have to give director Ben Elton credit for nailing at least one thing - folk festivals are a great microcosm for exploring middle-class Australia.

It's the application of this idea that is both the best and worst thing about Three Summers, Elton's first film as director in 17 years. There are just too many subjects that Elton wants to dive into, and too many opportunities for him to go diving. Asylum seekers, social media, the music industry, various Indigenous-related issues, alcoholism, family matters, sexual relationships, and right-wing and left-wing viewpoints all get thrust under Elton's microscope. It's a lot to tackle, a lot to take in, and a lot of it works. But a lot of it doesn't.

Three Summers spreads its story across three years and three runnings of Westifal (should that be Westival?), a fictionalised folk festival set in WA. The two key characters are talented fiddle player Keavy (Breeds) and snooty Irish theremin prodigy Roland (Sheehan), but around them bubble an eclectic mix of musos, punters and assorted festival regulars.

Elton's film is very much like a music festival. Some acts you'll want to see and they'll be great, but there are also bound to be a lot of acts you don't care about or that aren't very good.

What works is the subplot centring on Caton's grumpy Morris dancer, who is used to explore conservative right-wing ideas about Aboriginals and refugees. It's all done very broadly and simply, but it's effective, and Caton is excellent in a role that ends up being the heart of the film. The cast that bubble around his story (Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell) are also good, but more importantly their characters and stories are also interesting. Relationships between mothers and daughters, Indigenous elders and wayward teens, and refugee children and adopted parents are all examined, as are white and black interactions, and it's this part of the story that is the strongest.

The main thread involving Keavy and Roland is by turns fascinating and frustrating. Breeds and Sheehan do well, but the plotting gets progressively ludicrous and unrealistic as the film progresses. Summer #1 is great, but by summer #3 it's pushing the bounds of believability. Similarly, the relationship between Keavy and her dad (Waters) stretches credulity by the third Westifal.

Elton manages to blend his stories well (although it would have been nice for more characters to interact and more plot streams to cross) and keeps things moving at a nice pace. A potentially frustrating thread involving two couples who never bother to see any music is at least funny and breaks up the film nicely, even if it adds nothing to the greater themes.

Elton is also pretty good at blending the realistic and heartfelt with the slightly absurd, but it's when the story wanders off into patently unbelievable that the film suffers. For example, an overzealous security guard is played for absurd laughs and it's no problem when sat alongside the important issues of how white Australia interacts with black Australia. But a declaration of love between two warring characters who see each other for three days once a year comes off as ridiculous. Ditto for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that seems to take place at the festival for reasons that can't be explained beyond plot convenience.

The cast is certainly not an issue in Three Summers. Along with the aforementioned Caton, Breeds and Sheehan, Waters is a stand-out in probably the film's most interesting and well written character. Szubanski is great as the bubbly community radio presenter, although her role feels underused.

When Three Summers works, it's funny, heartfelt, intelligent and incisive. When it doesn't, it's frustrating, silly, overly simplistic and underwritten. Thankfully it works more often than it doesn't, but Three Summers' ambition is failed by its delivery.

PS. One thing that really bothers me in movies is when actors pretend to play instruments and it's quite obvious they're not really playing their instrument. Be prepared for a lot of that in Three Summers.

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