By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s the 1970s, disco music is ubiquitous, and she’s a teenager.
That means everything is difficult and life seems tremendously unfair and she feels like a loser and no one seems to understand her and she doesn’t really fit in anywhere and the world is closing in on her and her parents seem to have beamed down from another planet and everyone neglected to tell her the rules by which they seem to be playing and nothing makes any kind of sense.
On top of all that, she’s just started the semester at a new school and she’s about to turn 15.
And among her greatest fears is that her mom will plan a humiliating birthday party in her honor.
A suffocating cloud of adolescent angst hovers over Girl Asleep, an unpredictable Australian comedy that thrives on its idiosyncratic quirkiness.
This arresting coming-of-age comedy focuses on Greta Driscoll, adroitly played by Bethany Whitmore – and underplayed at that – as someone who, with the prospects of becoming a grownup this distasteful and perhaps traumatic, would prefer to just stay a child.
Rosemary Myers, a theater director making her directorial movie debut, works from a screenplay by Matthew Whittet – who’s also in the film, playing Greta’s father — that’s based on his stage play.
But Myers finds ways to open up the piece and treat it cinematically, getting both laughs and insights with her inventive camera placement and thoughtful editing and mild but stimulating narrative surprises.
It’s all oddly unique and surprisingly affecting, including the choreographed numbers in which the cast breaks out their disco dance moves.
The emotional turmoil that grips wallflower Greta is easy to either relate to or sympathize with – especially for teenagers – as is her outsider status and outward timidity.
Her caring but intrusive and eccentric parents, played by screenwriter Whittet and Amber McMahon, get to make an impression, not just linger in the background, and they induce a few cringes but their fair share of laughs.
But the film is nearly stolen by Harrison Feldman as Elliott, an out-there schoolmate – also an outsider and as socially awkward as she is, but in different ways — who swoops down and befriends Greta and wants some kind of relationship with her.
He’s in Greta’s corner, to be sure, but he’s not much help when it comes to the trio of mean girls who harass and bully her on a daily basis, making the already tough duty of getting up and going to school each and every day that much more trying.
So what does she do to get through the day? She disappears into a world of fantasy in which her life is reflected in nightmarishly surrealistic adventures.
And her parents, ignoring Greta’s protestations and hoping to help her overcome her natural shyness, not only plan her party but (gulp) invite pretty much every teen available.
Which is why Greta takes off during the party and – in her mind, at least — goes through the looking glass and turns into a variation of Alice in Wonderland.
Aimed mostly at teens but agreeable as well to ex-teens, the film announces the arrival of promising first-timers behind the camera and several fresh faces in front of it.
So we’ll fantasize about 2-1/2 stars out of 4. Girl Asleep will keep you very much awake.