“Girl Asleep” comes to us from straight outta Adelaide, in south Australia, where director Rosemary Myers runs a well-regarded performing arts company and where writer-actor Matthew Whittet first staged the play on which the movie is based. It’s a coming-of-age comedy-fantasy-drama, as awkward as that sounds and nearly as awkward as the 14-year-old misfit at its center. There’s a lot of talent here and a lot of enthusiasm; also a lot of influences that haven’t been successfully reprocessed into something convincing or fresh. It’s a mess, but a reasonably charming one.
Bethany Whitmore stars as Greta, who’s 14 going on miserable when the film opens. She has just relocated to a new home and school, both of which appear to be art-directed by Napoleon Dynamite after bingeing on Wes Anderson movies. The film’s look is aggressively cheeky but not as cleanly confident as its obvious models.
Greta has a loving idiot dad (writer Whittet), a frosty social-climbing mum (Amber McMahon), a rebellious older sister (Imogen Archer), and a new friend in Elliott (Harrison Feldman), a would-be suitor with a faceful of braces and a stack of ginger Brillo hair. She’s also tormented by a trio of mean girls: the hissable Jade (Maiah Stewardson) and silent Amazonian twins Amber and Sapphire (Fiona and Grace Dawson).
What sounds brightly antic on the page and possibly was so on the stage congeals quickly on the screen. “Girl Asleep” hints at an “Alice in Wonderland”-style dream world running underneath the film’s reality, unfolding in a spooky forest behind Greta’s house and accessed by a magic keepsake music box. We’re teased with glimpses of the whimsical Wild Things that live in this fantasy realm, but the movie takes forever to get us there, dawdling through a disastrous birthday party before finally sending its heroine down the rabbit hole.
There Greta makes a truncated voyage of self-discovery, with her family standing in as representative figures: Mum’s an ice queen, dad’s a sad tree, and so forth. It’s fully felt but murky and stagy; worst of all, the early real-world sequences are so visually overstylized that the later dreamworld scenes hardly look unusual at all.
“Girl Asleep” has won some awards on the international film circuit, and its heart and production design are in the right place. It will probably speak loud and clear to adolescent girls who, like Greta, stand at the cusp of adulthood while remaining dubious about the whole prospect. And I hope Myers and Whittet make more movies. Maybe it’s best to consider this one just practice.
Directed by Rosemary Myers. Written by Matthew Whittet, based on his play. Starring Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon. At Kendall Square. 77 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, mild sexuality).