Three Summers (2017)
It is absurd that any filmmaker would try to snapshot an entire nation in one movie, but Three Summers (2017) comes very close to doing just that. Almost every social and political issue that is near and dear to the Australian heart is brought together in one big tent full of ethical potpourri with lashings of larrikin humour and subversive irreverence. What’s not to enjoy?
The structural frame that holds the film together is both elegant and contrived. Multiple storylines are interleaved across three successive years of ‘Westival’, a fictional country music festival in Western Australia. There is no plotline as such: it’s more a montage of stand-up gags and music intended to reflect our changing social values over time, warts and all. Narrative continuity comes from following the romance between pretentious theremin player Roland (Robert Sheehan) and down-to-earth pub band fiddler Keevy (Rebecca Breeds). We meet a cross section of Aussie caricatures: festival radio announcer Queenie (Magda Szubanski) who doubles as narrator; a racist bigot (Michael Caton); an alcoholic father (John Waters); recidivist caravan dwellers; a cast of Indigenous and migrant identities; and a stone-faced security guard (Kate Box) who keeps stealing her scenes. Between them, they skip all too lightly across issues of race, class, colonialism, refugees, sexuality, musical culture, and national history.
Few of these issues are inherently funny or lightweight and if the gags were read from script they would struggle to get a chuckle. But timing is everything and in the hands of this ensemble it is all great fun. The actors play to stereotype rather than well-developed characters, except for Rebecca Breeds whose role traverses a wide emotional terrain. The warm spot is the romance between Roland and Keevy, which is as rocky sweet as their music is brilliant. The filming is exuberantly colourful and lively, lifted by a score full of festival joy drawn from a variety of musical genres. The quirky humour works on visual irony, such as when Michael Caton ridicules Indigenous dancers because of their native adornments while he himself wears a comical Morris dancing costume. Amidst the self-deprecating sendups of real life there are many issues that prick our national conscience, such as our unresolved relationship to the Indigenous owners of the land we invaded and our treatment of refugees. It is implausible, however, to suggest that the three-festival timeframe is enough to see substantial changes in attitudes; die-hard racists do not become exemplars of inclusion that fast.
Whatever faults one can find, none detract from the film’s enjoyment for both Aussies and overseas audiences wanting to know us better. Good-natured and big-hearted gags are entertaining, but the film’s bigger purpose is hidden inside the squirm-in-your-seat humour that holds up a mirror to the dark side of the Australian character.
Director: Ben Elton
Stars: Rebecca Breeds, Magda Szubanski, John Waters, Michael Caton, Robert Sheehan