Comparisons are odious. They are also inevitable when it comes to films. And Australian films. And Australian indigenous films. Within the space of a week I saw Mad Bastards, Brendan Fletcher's road movie musical (already in release), and writer-director Beck Cole's Here I Am, and while each is very much their own film – and as unfair as it may be – I find it difficult not to compare the two.
But first the differences. While Mad Bastards is very much a film about the male aboriginal experience, Here I Am is focused on the female, in particular Karen (Shai Pittman). We meet Karen as she is released from prison and makes her way to the city, stopping off at a hotel where she spends the night with a stranger. Karen awakens the next day only to be discovered, as bad luck would have it, by her mother, Lois (esteemed academic, Marcia Langton) who just happens to be one half of the hotel's cleaning crew.
Karen had a daughter before she went to prison and Lois has been raising her in the interim. Daughter and mother do not see eye to eye and Lois won't be giving up her granddaughter easily. But parenthood is put on hold for Karen; she must reside in a women's refuge as a condition of her parole. It's here we're introduced to a collection of indigenous women who, like Karen, have had unfavourable encounters with the law, the system and men.
These women are played by a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and it shows. Unlike Mad Bastards, where the similarly pro/non-pro cast were uniformly good, the performances in Here I Am are inconsistent, ranging from solid to stilted. But props to Pauline Whyman who as Skinny, Karen's best friend in the refuge, proves to be a breath of fresh air and provides a comic antidote to the somewhat leaden proceedings.
For me, Here I Am was too heavy handed, and with much too much talking. That's ironic given the film is produced by the same team behind Samson and Delilah (2009) (that film's director Warwick Thornton assumes DOP duties here), the closest example of a silent film Australia has produced in a long time.
I'm not denying the themes and issues which Beck Cole wishes to address are important, but perhaps the talkative nature of the material would have been better suited to the stage rather than the screen. Unlike Mad Bastards, which tackled its subject matters nimbly but with no less potency, Here I Am makes its points too heavily; preaching has its place but the cinema isn't it.