Andrew S Gilbert
Look Both Ways is a polygeneric, multi-media ensemble piece whose subject is no less than life itself in all its joys and sorrows, as bizarre chances, unexpected causalities, and the mysterious workings of the human heart are all shown interacting in a skillfully embroidered web of criss-crossing narratives.
We have seen this sort of thing before – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) – but Look Both Ways is the very first feature from Australian writer/director Sarah Watt, making it one of the most exciting, accomplished and ambitious debuts since Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005).
Friday afternoon. Amidst news of a catastrophic train derailment, artist Meryl (Justine Clarke) travels back by train from her father’s funeral, imagining lethal dangers (crashes, shark/whale attacks, earthquakes, rapists) all around her. She must meet a strict Monday deadline to complete a series of card designs. Her starsign is Cancer. Walking home, she witnesses a freak accident in which a man is run over by a slow-moving train – and so at the incident scene she meets press photographer Nick (William McInnes).
On a routine medical check-up, Nick has just been informed that he has testicular cancer, and that it has already spread throughout his body. He will have to wait until Monday to learn more from the specialist. Haunted by the long, agonising death of his father a year ago, Nick feels frightened and alone. He sees morbidity everywhere. Clearly he and Meryl are made for each other.
Meanwhile Nick’s suicide-fixated colleague Andy (Anthony Hayes) is still trawling through the wreckage of his previous marriage, when out of the blue his sometime girlfriend Anna (Lisa Flanagan) announces that she is pregnant and gives him till Monday to decide what he wants to do; Nick’s boss Phil (Andrew S. Gilbert) quietly reevaluates his own life in the light of Nick’s bad news; and a naturally taciturn man (Andreas Sobik) struggles to find the best way to express his complex feelings to a stranger (Daniela Farinacci) in whose path fate has thrown him.
Set over a long hot weekend, Look Both Ways lets personal crises emerge against a backdrop of cataclysmic disasters, both real and imagined, as its diverse characters strive to find perspective on their experience, significance in their life, even a reason to go on and see what the next week will bring. Yet if it sounds like a downbeat meditation on grief, despair and death itself (and it most certainly is concerned with all these things), Look Both Ways is at the same time a life-affirming romantic comedy, illustrating how the very worst of circumstances can engender optimism, love and happiness. The clue is in the title, directing viewers to remember, as they attempt to navigate their way through all the film’s heavy traffic, that the street also has its sunny side.
Before she made Look Both Ways, Sarah Watt was better known for her award-winning cartoon shorts, and this is reflected in the way that Meryl’s darkest neuroses are frequently realised on screen as animated versions of her own paintings, while Nick’s morbid obsessions appear in rapid montages of medical diagrams and organ pathologies. Accordingly, this must be the first film ever to punctuate a sex scene with frenetic flashes to the lovers’ anxieties about AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and diseased triplets – but this does not so much undermine the scene’s eroticism, as add to its urgent intensity (while keeping it interesting – and funny – to watch).
In fact Watt shows a real deftness of touch throughout in her handling of many contrasting tones and plotlines. Her flawless screenplay about flawed people makes everything appear to us seamlessly interconnected, even as to the characters themselves it all seems a chaotic mess of incident, emotion and experience. And she is blessed with a cast uniformly unafraid to expose the tics and foibles of their characters with great honesty.
All of which makes this an impressive, intelligent and moving tragicomedy of manners – any way you look at it.