It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another coming-of-age movie made by someone who actually graduated high school in the 1970s, but that won’t stop films from deploying the era’s teenage mores and tacky décor as lazy shorthand for the supposedly universal rites of teenhood. Girl Asleep, adapted by Australia’s Windmill Theatre Company from one of its plays, is one of these after-school special regurgitations. Never betraying an iota of lived experience, it trots out tropes seen in dozens of movies and sitcom episodes (the embarrassing dad, the big party, the fictional rock star crush, etc.), which can ring true only because they’ve been in circulation for decades. It’s not teenhood, but “teenhood,” with a fetish for depictions of adolescence that involved gawky boys in blue tuxedos and bedrooms decorated with pictures of horses. Perhaps something has been lost in translation; film and TV clichés can be a novelty on stage, but without an artist’s touch, they’re just clichés on screen.
The Girl of the title is Greta (Bethany Whitmore), new at a school where the mean girl alpha pack bears names like Amber, Jade, and Sapphire. Mortified by the 15th birthday party thrown against her will by her exercise-bike-riding mom (Amber McMahon) and mustachioed, short-shorted dad (Matthew Whittet, who wrote both the original play and the script), she retreats to her bedroom. There begins her Symbolism 101 dream about running away into the nearby woods, where a warrior figure of womanhood (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) sometimes comes to rescue her from wolves or various shape-shifting versions of the men and boys in her life. First-time film director Rosemary Myers—a veteran of children’s theater who helmed the original stage production—plays it broad and loud, which gels with the material’s sense of humor. (There’s a fairly good scene where Greta is seduced by a morphed combination of her older sister’s boyfriend and her favorite French crooner.)
In terms of pure style, however, Girl Asleep is an aesthetic rummage sale, its cribbed camera moves betrayed by the extreme staginess of the production design, less hand-made than off-brand. (The knock-off indie vibe isn’t helped by the fact that Harrison Feldman, who’s not bad as Greta’s only friend at school, looks like a police sketch of Gummo’s Jacob Reynolds.) There’s no reason for it to to have been shot in boxy Academy ratio, except to underscore the retro vibe. Myers doesn’t have that much of a sense of visual geometry—or music or camera movement, for that matter. There are small bursts of creativity here and there (an opening scene directed in an awkwardly dreamlike single take, subtitles for silently mouthed dialogue, titles written into props, etc.), but nothing to suggest that this modest fairytale of adolescent self-discovery has its origins in anything but other explorations of the same basic theme. Highly artificial but artless in spots, the movie occasionally pulls out a whip-pan or a planimetric frame that suggests an intended homage to the bittersweet fantasies of Wes Anderson, but comes across as a low-energy Jared Hess impression.
Note: Because of its shorter-than-average running time, Girl Asleep is screening with Pickle, a diverting 15-minute documentary about a couple’s long history caring for rescue animals who met untimely ends—a goose that drowned, a cat who couldn’t turn its head and then got carried off by an owl, a deformed fish that couldn’t stay upright and got electrocuted, and so on. It’s morbidly funny, though director Amy Nicholson (not to be confused with the film critic) errs on the side of cutesiness.