“A delight, if you can stomach it.”
What a ride! Rarely does a ‘family comedy’ pack this much bite and savagery, yet complement them so well with side-splitting dialogue and visual bedlam to boot. But the latest from Stephen Elliott does not beat around the bush — it is not for the whole family, it is about the whole family, and how depraved, classless and outrageous three families become during a period of adult idiocy, adolescent recklessness, and young love in 1970s Wallaroo, Australia. The film is a delight, if you can stomach it, but so heinous at times that I would not blame you if you can’t.
Elliott’s film is variably titled Flammable Children and Swinging Safari, depending on its different releases, but in this reviewer’s opinion the former is far better suited to its tone. At the core of the ensemble piece are Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson), the only two kids in this massive group that seem to have any morals — they are sort of in love, sort of best friends, sort of just clinging onto each other to keep themselves sane, and due to a freak accident when they were young, involving a match and their synthetic 1970s clothing, they are known as the ‘flammable children.’ The grown-up Marsh narrates the story, which is mainly led and constantly derailed by the parents on the block, played with breathless energy by a delightful lineup of Aussie icons. Proving once again that he is no one trick pony, Guy Pearce delivers in an off-the-wall turn as sunburnt but jacked encyclopedia salesman Keith Hall, patriarch of the Hall family, married to Kaye Hall, played by none other than Kylie Minogue herself. The Jones family is led by evil-grin expert Julian McMahon and catlike Radha Mitchell as Jo, whose motto for their sizable clan, much to the chagrin of neighboring kids/victims, is “If they’re going to experiment, they should do it at home!” Completing the unholy trinity is the Marsh family itself, led by lovable Jeremy Sims as Bob and hilarious Asher Keddie as Gale. As they intertwine and spar intermittently over the course of Flammable Children, the film makes amusingly and dishearteningly clear that people like this just should not be parents.
If you are wondering just why the film deserves its ribald reputation, observe a brief summary of the goings-on within these 97 minutes: there’s an attempted orgy, infidelity, aggressive urination (albeit after a jellyfish sting), animal abuse, child neglect, child smoking, child drinking, underage sex, violence, partial immolation, and a phenomenally gory finale that I will not dare spoil. Despite what you might be thinking, it’s all just a blast. The film is ruthless with its humour, be warned, and surely depraved, but it somehow avoids being outright tasteless and having a good time above all — or perhaps it is tasteless, but in all the right ways. When Rick tells his daughter to “go play in traffic,” or Gale holds down Kaye’s daughter to pee on her, or when the titular burning episode happens and the parents seem more interested in finishing their card game than putting out their kids, the horrifying misbehavior is somehow far funnier than it is upsetting.
All the insanity is helped along enormously by the natural ridiculousness of the 1970s setting. As Jeff’s early narration quips, a small Australian town like Wallarroo is a town that “time, and taste, forgot,” yet it seems to fit right in with the cacophonous consumerism and colorful grandeur of the 70s aesthetic, and the grainy film stock look that Elliott has used fits the remarkable amorality quite well somehow. Not to mention, the natural beauty of the Australian coast is presented in gorgeous vintage tones, and even the shots of the rotting blue whale carcass that washes up on the local beach are aesthetically pleasing.
Overall, Flammable Children is good fun, and a pleasure to watch, even though it will probably repulse you at least once a minute. Its frenetic editing, the surprisingly beautiful photography, and the crackerjack insane performances make this possibly my Festival top choice for viewers at home — if you are looking for a funny, crazy, unique midnight watch, Elliott has the film for you.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)
Go to Flammable Children at EIFF