Harrison Feldman and Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Harrison Feldman and Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

If you’ve ever looked back with fondness on your teenage years, then writer Matthew Whittet and director Rosemary Myers have made a film to remind you that adolescence offers little to be nostalgic about. Instead, it is often a dark and quirky time marked by confusion and discomfort. In fact, it’s rather like being lost in a forest—at night—and it’s kind of magical, but not in a good way. This Australian film, set in the 1970s, has a retro look and feel that contributes humor, and exudes a fitting hallucinatory quality to the messy coming-of-age experience. Style comparisons to Wes Anderson are unavoidable. Viewers will also recognize elements from The Wizard of Oz and Into the Woods woven into the storyline.

Myers expertly captures the awkwardness of the first day at a new school. Greta (Bethany Whitmore), just shy of her 15th birthday, sits alone in the schoolyard as other students participate in a variety of activities around her. She is befriended by the garrulous Elliott (Harrison Feldman), a fluffy redhead who, like Greta, seems to have one foot still firmly anchored in childhood.

To the delight of her mother, Greta invites Elliott to her house. Believing her little girl is finally growing up, Janet (Amber McMahon) is determined to host a birthday party and invite all of Greta’s classmates. But Greta, who is not yet ready to face this teenage rite of passage, is adamantly against the party and overcome with anger and frustration when she discovers the invitations have already gone out.

On the day of the party, the film takes a decidedly surreal turn. Greta is forced into wearing makeup and a dress, and Elliott is decked out in a tux. The house morphs into a discotheque with classmates dancing into the foyer, depositing gifts into Greta’s arms. As the line of guests dwindles, Greta finds that, despite her fears, all seems copacetic. She begins to relax and join in the fun, and that’s when she is confronted by all that is hateful and confusing about being an adolescent when a trio of mean girls crashes the party. Racing to the sanctuary of her bedroom, she collapses into a troubled sleep.

Dreaming that her treasured music box (a symbol of her childhood) is being stolen, she chases the thief into the forest behind her house. Quickly losing sight of her quarry, she realizes that she’s lost in the woods, but, determined to get her music box back, she continues her search until discovering that she’s now the one being hunted. Along the way, she encounters familiar figures in the guise of the Frozen Woman, the Abject Man, the Huldra, a swoon-worthy French singer, and, most disturbing of all, a very familiar looking little girl.

Writer Matthew Whittet does a bang-up job as Greta’s thoroughly embarrassing father, as does Amber McMahon as the mom, who is rarely seen without a glass of wine in hand and openly flirting with Greta’s older sister’s boyfriend. Feldman, as Elliott, successfully carries off complete self-assurance while evincing total ambiguity regarding his sexual orientation. Whitmore, who manages to maintain a perpetually knitted brow as Greta, effectively conveys the reluctant teen’s fear and hesitation when forced to face her rapidly changing world.

This surreal fantasy with timeless relevance and a delightful ending will be a film to watch again. Many a teen girl will recognize herself in Greta, but perhaps the most appreciative audience will be those who were coming of age during that unique and, in retrospect, very surreal decade of the ’70s.

A short documentary precedes Girl Asleep. Directed by Amy Nicholson, Pickle explores Tom and Debbie Nicholson’s experiences with a seemingly endless collection of misfit pets. The documentary explores the unique combination of humor and pathos that often accompanies people’s memories of the pets they’ve loved and lost, from an overweight chicken with bumblefoot, to a paraplegic possum, to Pickle, the seriously deformed fish who was kept alive by being propped up in a specially designed sponge. Brief, amusing animations accompany the real-life photos and footage of the featured animals. Like finding yourself trying not to laugh at a funeral, it feels so inappropriate, but you just can’t help giggling. Even the most ardent animal lovers will find themselves enchanted.

Directed by Rosemary Myers
Written by Matthew Whittet
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories
Australia. 77 min. Not rated
With Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Eamon Farren, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Imogen Archer