Dairy Tale

The price of watching The Price of Milk is a dangerous overdose of whimsy

It's always dangerous, when describing a film, to label it as "whimsical." For one thing, it's often hard to get a bead on what exactly that means. Then, once you get some idea, you realize that it generally means either (a) a movie that's trying to be funny but isn't; (b) a movie filled with "sophisticated" references that'll make philistines feel superior when they get them; (c) a comedy that doesn't involve a single joke about being hit in the face with something; or (d) an excuse for filmic surrealism.

Every one of those explanations works, to a point, when talking about The Price of Milk, though the movie is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Directed by New Zealand comedian Harry Sinclair (Topless Women Talk About Their Lives), the story was essentially made up as shooting progressed, in a form of improvisation that is, apparently, the director's signature style. Unlike, say, Mike Leigh, however, who also uses improvisational techniques to construct his films, Sinclair does no preproduction whatsoever, thus eliminating such troublesome concepts as "character arcs" and "narrative consistency." Although the idea of a script created without the Syd Field three-act structure may sound appealing to those who've overdosed on studio fare, even such viewers may start longing for logic at a certain point, and it isn't there, though the movie remains watchable simply because it's impossible to predict what will happen next. That, and because it has a game cast that seems ready for anything.

The film's opening is promising enough: several shots of cows staring directly into the camera, against the large green hills of New Zealand. From there, we enter the bedroom of our protagonists, Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Rob (Karl Urban). They're both trying to sleep, and he keeps hogging the covers. And as the quilt gets pulled back and forth, the opening credits unfold, sewn into the folds of the cloth. It's unlikely that opening credits have ever been this creative on such a small budget.

Rob and Lucinda are quickly established as being wildly in love and as yet uninterested in children. He's a dairy farmer who owns a large number of cows, and thus they live in the country, where there's lots of grazing space. They also own a dog with agoraphobia who scampers around with a box covering him at all times.

One day, on the way to the local store, Lucinda runs over what appears to be an old woman in a fake beard. Only slightly disgruntled from the fall, this mysterious senior walks away with the warning: "Just remember--keep warm!"

Lucinda immediately interprets this as a sign that her relationship may be in trouble, despite no evidence that it actually is, save the unsubstantiated speculation of her pothead "friend" Drosophila (yes, a character named after a fruit fly--this fulfills the "sophisticated references" requirement mentioned earlier), played by Willa O'Neill, who crashes her car frequently while stoned.

Later that night, Lucinda and Rob's quilt is mysteriously stolen by a gang of Maori golfers who are able to appear and disappear at will. When Rob doesn't act appropriately upset over the loss, Lucinda takes it as a sign that their imminent nuptials may be doomed. Once again receiving dubious advice from Drosophila, Lucinda decides that a fight will kick-start their passion, so she drives a bulldozer out into the cow pasture with a glass of beer in the scoop.

Right as Rob sees her, she deliberately drops the beer. Surprisingly, this doesn't infuriate him but rather causes him, like us, to worry about Lucinda's sanity. In response, Lucinda dives into a vat of milk. This makes Rob mad and leads to great sex.

But the real narrative thrust of the story, if indeed it can be claimed that there is any, comes when Lucinda discovers that her quilt is now in the possession of Auntie (Rangi Motu), the old woman she ran over, whose nephews are the mysterious Maori golfers. After failing to steal the quilt back, Lucinda trades all of Rob's cows for it, hoping the inevitable fight will lead to some truly wondrous bumping and grinding beneath the recovered blanket.

The Price of Milk is designed to evoke fairy tales, but fairy tales work because the characters in them have plain motivations that people can relate to.

Auntie, who serves as a combination of mysterious beggar, spirit guide, and wicked old witch, is so capricious that it's impossible to understand her. She seems to be the one making everything happen, but why? Because whimsy amuses her? She dismisses the notion of vengeance for having been run over, saying that it happens all the time, then proceeds to torment Lucinda, only to suddenly take her side for no particular reason. For the record, this sort of thing is the problem with making stuff up as you go along.

 
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