An attention-grabbing, potentially profile-elevating performance by up-and-comer Hunter Page-Lochard is the major selling point of “Around the Block,” an Aussie variation of the oft-spun scenario about an at-risk high-schooler who gets a shot at redemption through a transformative extracurricular activity. Christina Ricci claims top billing — and provides some modest marquee allure — as a transplanted American teacher determined to uplift her Sydney students by introducing them to Shakespeare. But Page-Lochard is the one more likely to earn the critical plaudits in this well-intended film.
Improbably engaged to the Down Under version of a good ol’ boy, U.S.-born Dino Chalmers (Ricci) immerses herself in what she assumes will be her happily-ever-after milieu by landing a job as English teacher in Redfern, a Sydney inner suburb, at an under-funded school on the brink of closure. It’s the sort of demanding gig that idealistic educators have been tackling in movies since the earliest flickerings of the silent era. And, true to form, Dino immediately evinces her can-do, infectiously ambitious spirit by talking the school’s borderline-burnout principal (Aussie screen icon Jack Thompson) into letting her stage a student production of “Hamlet.”
Liam Wood (Page-Lochard), a 16-year-old Aboriginal student from a hardscrabble housing project, surprises no one more than himself when he impulsively — and successfully — auditions for the lead role as the Prince of Denmark. At first, his atypical interest in a school event seems motivated entirely by his attraction to classmate and co-star Williemai (Madeleine Madden), a bright Aboriginal girl from a more upscale neighborhood. Gradually, however, first-time writer-director Sarah Spillane reveals that Liam has been inspired by the example of his Uncle Charlie, former member of a Sydney theater troupe.
Trouble is, Uncle Charlie recently met his untimely demise while collaborating with Jack (Matt Nable), Liam’s father, during a botched casino heist. Steve (Mark Coles Smith), Liam’s hot-headed, criminally inclined brother, is determined to punish the informer he holds responsible for Uncle Charlie’s death and his father’s current incarceration. And Steve fully expects Liam to assist in the violent retribution.
To her credit, Spillane doesn’t push too hard on the obvious parallels between Hamlet’s reluctance to kill his father’s murderer and Liam’s own hesitation to extract revenge. Rather, the filmmaker uses Liam’s crisis of conscience as the means to explore his deeply conflicted feelings of desire and dread, while Page-Lochard subtly and affectingly illuminates the often contradictory facets of the character. The young actor is especially effective in scenes with Ursula Yovich (who makes a memorable impact as Liam’s anxious mom), and in a key third-act interplay with Nable.
By sharp contrast, Ricci gamely struggles with clumps of hackneyed cheery-encouraging dialogue that inadvertently support another character’s dismissive suggestion that Dino is little more than a starry-eyed do-gooder who can’t help patronizing her Aboriginal students. Of course, Dino has problems of her own: Even before she distances herself from her casually racist fiance, she appears hopelessly lovesick for a beautiful shopkeeper (Andrea Demetriades) with whom she had a fling years earlier during a previous stay in Australia.
Dino’s slow-simmering sexual confusion comes to a boil, so to speak, during a rather startling scene in which the schoolteacher takes a walk on the wild side, picks up an androgynous tattooed cutie (Ruby Rose) in a lesbian bar, and proceeds to enjoy a hot and uninhibited one-night stand. Spillane’s matter-of-fact approach to presenting this steamy interlude doesn’t entirely mitigate its disruptive shock value.
Of course, the scene might have generated less of a WTF response had the overall narrative been more evenly divided between the two central characters. As it stands, however, Liam emerges so clearly as the central figure in this story that, after a certain point in the proceedings, anything not directly involving him seems like just so much distraction.
Veronika Jenet’s supple editing is a plus throughout, particularly during the climactic sequences. Other tech values are more than adequate to the task at hand.
“Around The Block” will be shown at Frameline 38 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival at the Castro Theater Tuesday, June 24 at 9:30 p.m. For more informayion go to: www.frameline.org.