Making it’s European debut at the UK’s stalwart celebration of independent cinema, Raindance Film Festival, indie comedy That’s Not Me is the feature debut for writer/director Gregory Erdstein and co-writer/lead Alice Foulcher. But is it any good?
Foulcher stars as Polly Cuthbert, a struggling actress who refuses to work in commercials, preferring instead to hold out for that one big break. Shimmering on the horizon is a possible callback for a HBO series opposite Jared Leto. But when she turns down a questionable guest spot on popular soap Summer Street, that role – and the HBO series – lands in the lap of her identical twin sister, and fellow actor, Amy. As Amy’s career skyrockets off-screen, we follow Polly as she struggles to deal with her sister’s success, and the weight of her own unfulfilling existence.
Playing off a whip-smart script she co-wrote with Erdstein, Foulcher embodies Polly’s every awkward tribulation with the kind of pitch-perfect vulnerability that will be immediately identifiable to anyone who has ever played at being one thing, but struggled through life resigned to being something far less glamorous.
And at its core, That’s Not Me is that rarest of beasts, an Australian comedy content to rely upon its own wits and offering wilful resistance to the usual shame-spiral of national self-deprecation. Even the great Australian comedies of recent memory – The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding, Kenny – rely almost entirely on this approach, but for every Castle there follows a handful of unworthy (and often unfunny) imitators, content to cash in on cheap gags about bogan no-hopers. Admittedly, several moments in That’s Not Me do give over to this brand of humour, but the gags remain sharp and knowing. Take Polly’s ‘I don’t watch Australian films’ throwaway, the reported cause of much mirth at festival screenings on home soil. Ditto, the film’s hilariously unsubtle digs at the fictional Summer Street and soaps of its ilk, which have long figured as both national joke and fertile training ground for some of Australia’s finest international acting talent.
Less an ‘Australian comedy’ than a comedy that just happens to be set in Australia, its humour and pathos are conveyed with an innate naturalism. And even when Polly’s predicaments threaten to push that naturalism beyond acceptable limits, composure is restored via swift, smart, and – oh, yep – funny resolutions. Indeed, this continuous high-wire act is sustained right up to the final scene, in which a canny set-up delivers a satisfying (and refreshingly honest) conclusion to Polly’s rags-to-rags tale.
Throughout the film, in fact, Gregory Erdstein’s direction consistently toys with, but never betrays those naturalistic inclinations. Canny variations in scale and framing are particularly effective in moments where the gentle denial of naturalism is specifically employed as a subtle formal device, one that sets up the viewer, even if they remain blissfully unaware of the gag headed their way. As well as being deployed in the final scene, this tactic extends to their playful deployment of certain cinematic tropes, which are often used to pull the proverbial rug out from under the unsuspecting audience. When Polly makes a half-hearted dash to Hollywood for one last shot at the big time, for instance, a litany of transportation tropes butt up against Polly’s reminders of grim reality. (Among all the film’s references to David Lynch, this sequence brought to mind another Australian actress arriving in Hollywood in Mulholland Drive, albeit with gentle humour replacing the earlier films’ abundant malevolence.)
Produced on a meagre $60k budget – the otherwise ubiquitous Screen Australia logo is notably absent – the film’s technical deftness belies any monetary constraints. But the key to its success is not some mere sheen of professionalism, but the fact that whatever slight deficiencies may exist – occasionally sluggish pacing, some odd sound mixing – are successfully smothered by a story that possesses genuine heart and wit, and which is ably conveyed by good performances across the board.
That’s Not Me might revel in the falsity of the entertainment world but it also refuses to wallow in self-indulgent drivel. This is sharp, smart filmmaking, driven by a quality script, and excellent performances. I, for one, am very much looking forward to seeing what Erdstein and Foulcher do next. No pressure, guys.
That’s Not Me is playing at the 25th Raindance Film Festival, with one further screening at Vue West End on Thursday September 28. Full details and bookings on the Raindance website.