Angst and insecurity in public school battle of wills



Is This the Real World (MA). Director: Martin McKenna. Starring: Sean Keenan, Greg Stone, Julia Blake, Charlotte Best, Susie Porter, Matt Colwell. 88 minutes

This one seems to be straight out of the First Time Filmmaker's Playbook (Australia Edition): 1: Take an introverted adolescent protagonist. 2: Wrap him in angst. 3: Give him a troubled past that sets him at odds with his natural environment. 4: Send him off on the path to catharsis, via gauntlets of trauma. 5: Add some bravura stylistic flourishes and a melancholic tone. 6: Call it art.

Is This the Real World, TV screenwriter McKenna's big-screen debut, is the second first-time feature of this ilk to arrive this month — the other being Grant Scicluna's rather more interesting Downriver. Scicluna's film, about a young man coming to terms with a crime he committed as a child, is steeped in themes of sin and redemption, and draws reams of symbolic meaning from its rural setting.

McKenna's film doesn't achieve the same levels of gravitas, some exceptional performances and a handful of superbly executed scenes aside. Its protagonist Mark (Keenan) is a prototypical kid in crisis; the middle child of a single mother (Porter), whose older brother (Colwell) is an ex-con, and who himself has been kicked out of the private school to which he had earned a scholarship.

Sean Keenan and Susie Porter in Is This the Real WorldThis last fact brings him into the orbit of Mr Rickard (Stone), vice-principal of the public school at which Mark winds up. Rickard claims the credit for having lifting the status of the once struggling school, and identifies in the smart but troubled Mark both the potential to do well and a danger to his own legacy. From day one, Rickard takes a special interest in this enigmatic new student.


"It is only through her small revelations that we glimpse a man who failed as a husband and is failing as a father."


Mark, meanwhile, sees in Rickard a misguided do-gooder and, later, something a little more dangerous: an ambitious man whose ego is the flipside of insecurity. A battle of wills commences. The verbal and psychological power games the two men play are the richest vein of dramatic and thematic tension the film contains, executed with restraint and subtlety by Kennan and Stone.

It is regrettable that Rickard's life outside school is not explored more fully. Mark pursues a relationship with Rickard's daughter Kim (Best), and it is only through her small revelations that we glimpse a man who failed as a husband and is failing as a father. Later Rickard is the perpetrator of the film's most shocking act, which, due to the thinness of the characterisation, is also its most farfetched.

McKenna is clearly interested in exploring constructions of masculinity, both in Mark and in Rickard, but often these come across either as too clever or not properly thought through. Scenes where Mark allows himself to be repeatedly knocked to the ground during a schoolyard football scrap, and arranges for his brother to take him and a few school bullies for a joyride, don't ring true.

Likewise, the mirroring of Mark's emotional state — the result, in large part, of tensions and hardships in his home life — with the progress of the illness of a family pet, turns out to be laughably heavy-handed. More effective are the elegiac, dreamlike sequences of Mark practicing BMX tricks in a greylit aqueduct; where, in solitude, he seeks to embody the grace that has eluded him in life.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Is This The Real World, Martin McKenna, Sean Keenan, Greg Stone, Julia Blake



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