(2008) Dramedy (Monterey Media) Danielle Catanzariti, Toni Collette, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Leticia Monaghan, Christian Byers, Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra, Jonny Pasvolsky, Caitlin McDougall, Edwin Hodgeman, Cassandra Jinman. Directed by Cathy Randall
Growing up is hard enough as it is. Growing up different and longing to be normal – well, that’s pretty much how all of us perceive our adolescence. We all aim to be accepted and to fit in, but what is normal really? And how many of us fit the description?
Esther Blueburger (Catanzariti) is a 13-year-old girl in an exclusive Australian private school who yearns for that normalcy. Her twin brother Jacob (Byers) is a complete nerd and a social horror show but at least the two get along. Esther, with her glasses and her pet duckling (a foundling she calls Normal, after what she longs to be) is a bit of an odd duck herself, awkward with her classmates. Oh and did I mention that Esther’s Jewish?
Her bat mitzvah is approaching and with reluctant pluck Esther invites her classmates to the event. Of course, none of them show and Esther is mortified. Surrounded with well-meaning but overbearing aunties and relatives, she finds refuge in a nearby alley where she finds Sunni (Castle-Hughes) having a smoke. Sunni attends a public school that has caught Esther’s eye – the students there seem far more accepting.
Esther drags Sunni to her party where she passes her off as a classmate, which reassures her emotionally distant self-centered parents (Davis, Dykstra) who haven’t a clue about the hell their daughter is going through. Sunni, however, gets it much better than they do and the girls hatch a plan. Sunni forges the signature of Esther’s parents on paperwork excusing Esther from the school for a year on an exchange program to Sweden. She then enrolls Esther in the public school, passing her off as an exchange student from Sweden. This makes Esther instantly popular.
The plan works a little too well. Soon Sunni’s friends begin to flock to Esther and ignore Sunni. Esther develops a deeper and closer relationship with Sunni’s exotic dancer mum (Collette). The relationship becomes extremely strained – and a tragedy threatens to dissolve it completely.
This coming-of-age tale arrives to us courtesy of Randall, a soap opera veteran making her feature film writing and directing debut. There are quite a few things to admire about her first movie – among them, Esther herself who has an offbeat appeal. Part of that has to do with her never-say-die attitude; part of it has to do with Catanzariti who has a natural charisma that is readily apparent. If she chooses to pursue the acting thing, she has a bright future.
Castle-Hughes who was so impressive in Whale Rider has a nice role here which is very different. She’s a bit of a tough gal with a heart of gold who at the core is much more fragile than anybody realizes. In many ways I thought her part was a bit more realistic than that of Esther; Castle-Hughes does a fine job bringing it to life.
Teen coming of age movies tend to have an overabundance of quirkiness to them, but this one tones it down to levels where it is actually a bit more realistic. Female leads in these types of movies are exceedingly rare and often have a bimbo aspect to them; this movie is refreshingly sex-free but that doesn’t mean Esther and Sunni don’t have an interest in boys. Okay, more like an obsession. Just like almost every other 13-year-old girl.
WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a goofy charm that gets under your skin.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tragic element seems a little forced and at odds with the movie’s otherwise sunny tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements that might be inappropriate for youngsters, a few foul words here and there, some teen smoking and a teensy bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Castle-Hughes was pregnant during the filming of the movie.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video and a more interesting than usual featurette about the casting of Danielle Catanzariti as Esther and how she transformed into the role.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Joneses