There’s a lot you can learn about Australia by watching Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, writer/director Cathy Randall’s kicky, colorful but self-sabotaging big screen debut. Firstly, if the title teenager is any example, 13 year old Australian girls can change schools with shocking ease, literally abandoning one school and then showing up on the doorstep of another, no questions asked. The film also confirms that there really are Jews in Australia, which means NASA can close down its Search for Jews in Australian Cinema research program (SJAC) and instead study the ruins of Esther’s sparsely attended Bat Mitzvah. The final lesson is that young girls Down Under, like everywhere else, struggle to establish their identity against stifling conformity, parental ignorance and peer pressure. That last bit could have resonated strongly with young teens, and still might. But Randall has a plan, one that requires abandoning the candied tone of the early goings and darkening the story for something self-consciously “real.” It’s a risky move she can’t pull off, compromising an otherwise positive story and damaging the film’s chances for repeat viewing. Appearances by Toni Collette and Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes should draw a few curious parents to what is, most of the time, a quirky and quite enjoyable coming of age saga.
Collette and Castle-Hughes are the marketable names, but the film belongs to Danielle Catanzariti and her delightful breakout performance as Esther. Saddled with glasses, pigtails and braces (Randall is not clever with her signifiers), Esther Blueburger is the most gawky, least popular girl at her tony private school. Her classmates are blonde and cruel and their conformity is depicted as lobotomized bubbliness by cinematographer Anna Howard (with a spiritual assist from Busby Berkeley). Esther’s only friend is a baby duck she rescues from its science lab cage and gives the name Normal (Randall is not clever with her symbolism either), which only spotlights her inability to convince anyone from school to attend her Bat Mitzvah. It’s rare that Judaism is addressed in an Aussie film, and Esther’s minority religious status gives her another reason to feel like an outsider. But the movie isn’t interested in exploring Jewry; Esther’s call to the Torah is just a ready-made device, an underlined and bolded demarcation between her childhood and the confusion and crises of her newfound adulthood. During the Bat Mitzvah, Esther bonds with Sunni (Castle-Hughes), whose rougher public school upbringing and unconventional family life are the height of nonconformity compared to Esther’s math nerd brother and uptight parents. Sunni and Esther begin a friendship intended to teach our heroine to be true to herself, the basic takeaway of so many movies (and TV shows and books and songs) aimed at this age group. Indeed, the filmmakers would take it as a compliment that Esther Blueburger sometimes feels like a tweener magnet featuring a plucky, live action Coraline auditioning for her own Disney Channel series.
Under Sunni’s tough-girl tutelage, Esther poses as a Swedish exchange student and secretly ditches her posh private school for Sunni’s more liberal public school. Maybe it’s an American critic’s ignorance of the Australian school system, but this seems a stretch, even within the slightly fantastical world Randall has established. But Esther’s ruse puts her in conflict with her friends and her emotionally distant mother (Essie Davis), providing much-needed dramatic tension. At the new school, Sunni introduces Esther to the thrill of kissing boys, the intimidating collection of teenage cliques and her motorcycle riding, free spirited mother (Collette, making scripted lines sound fresh as ad-libs). But Randall has no intention of taking this route to the finish line. As Esther compounds her lies to continue enjoying her new, liberated sense of self, the mood darkens until we wish Esther’s lessons could have been learned without such a deliberate left turn. Introducing concepts like death and sexual awakening into such a charming fable requires the subtle navigation of conflicting tones. It’s easier to just chuck it for a pile-up of credibility-stretching twists, which is the stuff of melodrama and the unfortunate choice Randall has made. That said, having gone to awkward lengths to provide comedic and dramatic examples of what she can do, Randall can still make a strong impression within the Aussie film community as the creator of sparkling offbeat fare. For now, Esther Blueburger, the adorable young lady, is a winner, even if Esther Blueburger, the movie that bears her name, sometimes fails her.
Distributor: Monterey Media
Cast: Danielle Catanzariti, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Toni Collette
Director/Screenwriter: Cathy Randall
Producer: Miriam Stein
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief teen smoking.
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: May 21 ltd.