These days, there is a conventionalised formula for the achievement of realism in film: lots of rough-and-ready handheld camerawork, a largely unprofessional cast drawn from the same street-level milieu in which the story is set, and improvised dialogue that builds around a vague scenario that only later in the editing suite assumes real shape.
Radically different, however, is the path to cinematic vrit that Rowan Woods has taken in Little Fish, his second directorial feature, following on from 1998’s hard-hitting bleakfest The Boys. Working from a screenplay that had been finely honed through almost a decade of development, taking on a cast of the best known A-list actors from the Antipodes, encouraging extensive character research, and working through each scene in an unprecedentedly lengthy rehearsal period, Woods has manufactured a film in which absolutely nothing has been left to chance – and yet the final product has all the appearance of fresh spontaneity. It is a miracle of constructed naturalism, making the great, if ultimately inconspicuous, effort which has gone into creating it seem both heroic and not a little mad.
Thirty-something Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett) has plans to expand and buy out the videostore that she has managed for the four years since she stopped being a junkie – but no matter how closely her tough mother Janelle (Noni Hazelhurst) watches over her, Tracy’s past keeps catching up with her; and when, thanks to her poor credit history, Tracy is unable to secure a bankloan, she compounds her problems by concealing the truth from her employer and Janelle. At the same time Janelle’s ex-boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a one-time football star who became a heroin addict and first introduced Tracy to the drug, resurfaces in the Hearts’ lives as he struggles to go clean.
Meanwhile, Lionel’s sometime lover, the gangster Brad Thompson (Sam Neill), is getting ready to retire from a life of crime, except that his right-hand-man Steven Moss (Joel Tobeck) is keeping a few illegal operations going behind his boss’ back to finance the upwardly mobile ambitions of his wife (Susie Porter). Tracy’s Vietnamese boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) has returned after four years in Toronto, claiming to have a job as a stockbroker, while in fact back in partnership with Tracy’s amputee brother Ray (Martin Henderson), setting up a big drug deal with Moss, in waters far too deep for such little fish.
Set in Sydney’s working class suburb of Cabramatta (dubbed ‘Little Saigon’ because of its large Vietnamese population), Little Fish depicts an interconnected ensemble of fragile folk who, like the former ‘boat people’ around them, face endless sink-or-swim dilemmas as they struggle blindly towards a future that they hope will harbour them from their troubled past. As their tale of dysfunction, alienation, delusion and lost innocence unfolds, everyone, it seems, is having trouble keeping their head above water.
We have come to expect the likes of Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as queens, agents or elves, but less outlandish roles are always more difficult to carry off, and in Little Fish all the cast slough off their superstar aura and play ordinary suburban as though they were born to it, in complex and convincing performances whose art has utterly concealed itself. They are all so low-key, and Jacquelin Perske’s script imparts information about them in such a casual, elliptical fashion, that you might imagine you were seeing a genuine slice of Sydney life playing out on the screen as though through a window, were it not for the film’s poetic richness, Danny Ruhlmann’s dreamy cinematography and Nathan Larson’s haunting score. Some will delight in its understated languor, while others no doubt will find it just plain uneventful.
Like all great (and some not so great) art, Little Fish will leave you full of admiration for its undeniable craft, but perhaps also not entirely sure what its point is.