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Sport as class warfare

Playing For Charlie (M). Director: Pene Patrick. Starring: Jared Daperis, Jodie Rimmer, Shane Connor, Mark Leonard Winter, Charlotte Zerna. Running time: 95 minutes.

Playing For CharlieGiven the perennial challenges confronted by the Australian film industry, it would be easy to write Playing For Charlie off as another missed opportunity. In fact many elements in the first feature from Victoria based writer-director Pene Patrick work well. 

Not the least of these is a strong performance from Daperis as Tony, a Rugby Union prodigy from Melbourne's western suburbs. Playing For Charlie is Tony's coming-of-age story. Though still at high school, Tony is responsible for caring for his infant brother Charlie (Zerna), as well as his mother Paula (Rimmer), who has MS. When the opportunity arises for Tony to try out for the state rugby team and possibly pursue a dream career, he is torn between his sport and his family. That said, success in the former could see the latter supported for life.

Playing For Charlie evokes a sense of sport as class warfare. Tony is the working class underdog battling to excel in a sport dominated by private school boys. The first challenge he faces in joining the team is a financial one: he needs to replace his glasses with a pair of contact lenses, but lacks the money to do so. He's also clearly on the outer, unrepresented in the collegial old boys' club of dads who have the state team coach's ear.

A long lost half brother (Winter) arrives on the scene to help Tony out with contact lenses and flashy athletic gear — the unemployed Scarf is mysteriously cashed up. Or maybe not so mysteriously; the temptation for the poor westie Tony to engage in petty crime is a cliché too far, but does help to highlight the social structures that define Tony's world, that oppress him and his family, and from which he hopes sporting success will free him.

While there is much to enjoy in Playing For Charlie, there are fundamental problems too. It has a divided focus, and a lack of balance between its different parts. On the one hand it is a domestic drama that emphasises the struggles of a working class family after the death of the primary breadwinner (Tony's father), and the additional pressure placed on the teenage Tony as student, carer and teenage boy with his own dreams and ambitions.

The mother-son chemistry between Daperis and Rimmer mean this domestic aspect of the film works quite well. But at times it becomes unbearably mawkish. The point where Tony, during a heated emotional exchange with Paula, tearfully declares 'I'm going to show you how to fly mum!' and proceeds to push her wheelchair at speed down the street, is Playing For Charlie at its corniest. (The less said about the half-baked westie caricature of Scarf, the better.)

On the other hand this is an underdog sports film, and yet for a movie about sport there is scant sport in it. This is a problem, because although it is important for us to understand that Tony is a prodigy, we never see his skills in full flight. Instead we are given fleeting glimpses of choreographed training sessions, and fuzzy flashbacks of Tony tossing a ball around with his father in the shadow of an oil refinery. The latter image is a telling symbol for the blooming of passion and talent in hard places, but it does not reveal Tony's brilliance.

In fact it's fair to say Tony's 'brilliance' is merely 'alleged', primarily by his high school rugby coach Ruddock (a curmudgeonly Connor), whose cantankerous interventions on Tony's behalf play no small part in the boy's incursion into the state team tryouts. But we need more than his word for it. Film is visual, and although we eagerly anticipate the eventual on-screen revelation of Tony's athletic genius, it never arrives.

Playing For Charlie falls down on points such as these. Perhaps 'missed opportunity' is the apt phrase after all.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Playing For Charlie, Pene Patrick.Jared Daperis, Jodie Rimmer, Shane Connor, Mark Leonard Winter, Zerna



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