About a Girl

Hippie-era New Zealand frames the coming-of-age drama Rain

The weird thing about Rain is that there's virtually no rain in it. Characters mention precipitation briefly and metaphorically, but the cloudburst never happens. Fortunately, we get light showers of emotion a couple of times, but then--strangely--these wane to an inconsistent and ultimately unsatisfying drizzle. It's as if fledgling director and screenwriter Christine Jeffs is determined to promise more and deliver less, setting up an atmospheric scenario, letting her talent breathe life into their roles and then releasing them to a mawkish, pedestrian course.

Then again, if one takes it as a given that motivations will be vaguely telegraphed, plot will be hazy and characters will be manipulated in obvious, ultimately jarring ways, Rain is not without its charms. Based on the acclaimed novel by Kirsty Gunn, this story of a 13-year-old girl's blossoming awareness of herself and her family offers a slow, sensuous contemplation of womanhood's threshold. The location has been switched from a New Zealand lake to a coastal beach, but the time is still 1972, the social climate is lax, and the shoreline is awash with appetite.

Most of the film takes place in and around a tidy little "midcentury" cottage rented by Ed Phelon (Alistair Browning, Bronagh from TV's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) and his wife, Kate (Sarah Peirse, of the superior mother-daughter feud flick Heavenly Creatures). The couple's passions are pretty much spent, so he spends his time mowing the lawn and she spends hers getting drunk on it. (These points are driven home via reused footage in a very film-school manner.) Of course, none of this was intended to be miserable. They've brought their two children, adolescent Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki) and little Jim (Aaron Murphy), to the seaside to afford the whole family a happy holiday. The thing is, Mom and Dad aren't satisfying each other anymore, so change and unhappiness are inevitable.

I like it straight up: Fulford-Wierzbicki comes of age at 13 in Rain.
I like it straight up: Fulford-Wierzbicki comes of age at 13 in Rain.

Enter Cady (Marton Csokas, Celeborn from The Lord of the Rings), one of those rugged itinerant photographer types who live on sexy boats just across the mudflats from pining, middle-aged women. Cady enjoys manly activities such as fishing with Ed, but the director can't seem to keep her lens off his glutes, to the point that Kate notices them as well. It being the early '70s and all, Ed and Kate are happy to host blowout parties culminating in midnight adventures of pallid, white skinny-dipping. During one of these, Kate scams a few of many kisses from Cady, and Janey notices, and nothing will ever be the same, or something.

Janey dotes on her little brother, so a lot of the film is concerned with her playing and swimming with him, generally guarding him and suffering his teasing when she maliciously kisses a well-meaning neighbor boy. Since Kate takes to booty-calls to pump her sagging ego and Ed is practically frozen in his frustration, there's not much for anyone to do but wander around until something bad happens. Being that Cady's handy with a camera, we also bide our time with Kate having her picture snapped, then with the resentful Janey wanting to wear her mother's clothes and be preserved with equal glamour. Between mother and daughter, Cady becomes the bone to pick.

If Rain were more ambitious, it would be a rather satisfying film, perhaps along the lines of last year's American Rhapsody, which was released by the same distribution company. But it isn't. Scenes hang, or go nowhere, and the occasional moment of drama (drunken Kate nearly drowning) or mirth (Janey telling Cady his boat stinks) is lost in the foam of the movie's languid little waves. Admittedly, the project exudes the awkward beauty of a home movie from a foreign land, but it also feels distant in the unfortunate sense.

That said, the performances hold the thing together, particularly the prickly interplay between Peirse and Fulford-Wierzbicki. Jeffs gives the two far too little to work with, but they nail the mother-daughter angst with seeming ease. Browning and Csokas are both nicely understated, and Murphy acts exactly like a little boy, which works well, since he's playing a little boy.

The film's biggest draw--for fans of pop music anyway--will be the score, which was composed by New Zealand songwriter Neil Finn, of Split Enz and Crowded House fame. It's curious work, and a little erratic, but every note enriches the film, both while he's experimenting and lifting passages from his own oeuvre (like "Into Temptation"). Heavy with mood and Finn's fine music, Jeffs' debut feature merely moistens us when we should be soaked. Maybe next time she'll let it all come down.

 
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