The Startlingly Assured Feature Debut From Sophie Hyde Is One Of The Best Australia’s Seen In Years. A Beautifully Nuanced Musing On Identity And Family.
With awards already accrued at both Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival, there was a considerable amount of buzz around 52 Tuesdays before its screening at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival. With high hopes in check, I didn’t quite expect to walk out having witnessed one of the finest Australian films in years and, indeed, one of the best of its kind full stop.
South Australian director Sophie Hyde has crafted something startlingly reassured and sublimely nuanced, all the more impressive as it’s her first full length dramatic feature, following on from 2011’s gut-wrenching documentary Life In Movement.
The story, devised with screenplay writer Matthew Cormack, is deceptively simple in some ways and refreshingly unique in others, taking as its basis an engaging high concept that’s reassuringly sold by its cast of inexperienced yet disarmingly convincing actors.
As a 16-year-old on the cusp of experiencing her own sexual awakening, Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) discovers that her lesbian mother Jane (Del Herbert-Jane) has in fact decided to transition and now identifies as James, with testosterone treatments and surgery planned. Things are further complicated by the revelation that Billie was the last to know, and also because James feels he needs space during the process and so sends his daughter packing to her father, well-meaning but largely absent chef Tom (Beau Travis Williams).
James softens the blow by arranging to spend every Tuesday night with his daughter over the course of the year’s separation. Hyde, in aiming to achieve as realistic a relationship between the pair as possible, chose to shoot the movie one day per week for 52 weeks, only giving her cast the script for that week’s instalment, hence the title and the almost documentary honesty of unfolding events.
Just as James encounters his own trials on his very personal quest, Billie too struggles to maintain her brave face as her burgeoning independence clashes with the feelings of hurt rejection she harbours. As she turns to sexual exploration with two older school mates, Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), Billie increasingly rejects her mother just as his initially frosty approach to her gives way to an increasingly desperate desire for Billie’s love, support and understanding. The onscreen bond between Cobham-Hervey and Herbert-Jane is magnificently realised.
Richly complex, nothing is presented as a simple case of black and white in this masterful film, from Billie’s own sexual fluidity to that of her uncle, James’ brother Harry (Mario Spate), an intriguing character in his own right that’s difficult to pin down. Relationships shift and change with an almost imperceptible lightness of touch that nonetheless leaves great chasms opening between some characters just as new bonds are forged. The film itself appears to undergo the same chrysalis process as James’ emerging gender identity.
Dropping in on each week fly-on-the-wall-style, sometimes for extended scenes loaded with detail, others but fleetingly, each jump is cut with startling flashes of real world events that occurred over the course of the film’s yearlong shoot. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement sit alongside natural occurrences like the great chasms appearing in the Arctic. Far from heavy-handed, these newsflashes seamlessly thread themselves into the unfolding human drama.
Both Billie and James keep their own video diaries, adding another layer of intertextual meaning to proceedings, and yet despite all that’s going on here, the simple truth of its characters keeps 52 Tuesdays incredibly grounded, even as it grapples with meaty issues of gender and sexual identity, family, friendship and love. It’s an incredible achievement from all involved, with Hyde a talent to watch behind the camera, and Cobham-Hervey in particular a dazzlingly assured young actor to enjoy in front of it.
Stephen A Russell