In the opening moments of the terrific new Australian film
Ways, an artist named Meryl (Justine Clark) witnesses a train
accident. Meryl is already in a dark mood. Two weeks earlier her
father died suddenly with no advance warning, and heading home from
her mother’s house, where she’s been since his funeral, Meryl’s mind
is filled with dreadful images. When the police question her, she must
struggle to focus. She knows she did not imagine the accident. She saw
a man playing with his dog, and that man is now dead.
Two journalists arrive, a reporter named Andy (Anthony Hayes) and a
photographer named Nick (William McInnes). Although they’ve never met
before, Nick is Meryl’s neighbor, so they leave the scene together,
each of them pretending to engage in normal conversation despite the
tragedy that’s brought them together. But like Meryl, Nick is
primarily absorbed in a personal shock of his own; he’s recently been
diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Justine Clark in Look Both Ways.
Photo Courtesy of Kino International.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
“I set out to make a
romantic comedy, but the stuff of most people’s lives includes
what we think of as tragedy, so Look Both Ways ended up a bit of
both, I guess.”
--director/screenwriter Sarah Watt
Look Both Ways will open in LA & NYC on April 14th, and in
additional US cities late April & May.
These are the elements, death and disease, around which
writer/director Sarah Watt builds her narrative. But something magical
happens in the telling: instead of doom and gloom, Watt somehow
creates one of the most life-affirming films of the year.
Look Both Ways is a downunder version of Crash, and its polar opposite
in every way, subtle where Crash is bombastic, true to the little
moments of real people’s lives where Crash manufactures big moments of
melodramatic overstatement. The characters in Crash are enraged by
their circumstances. The characters in Look Both Ways understand that,
as residents of the “first world,” their personal catastrophes are
simply the stuff of life. There are only two options: draw comfort
from your connection with those around you or live in lonely misery.
Like her heroine, Watt studied art but failed to make a living as a
painter. Meryl takes the practical step of working for a greeting card
company. Watt turned to animation. Her breakthrough came with the 1995
animated short Small Treasures which won the OCIC Award at the
Melbourne International Film Festival (given to “the most outstanding
Australian film [of the year] promoting human values”), and went on to
win the “Baby Lion” for Best Short Film at that year’s Venice Film
Festival. Clocking in at 15 minutes, Small Treasures is the story of
Jane (voiced by Rachel Griffiths) who is pregnant with her first
child. Like Meryl, Jane sees danger everywhere, but she still embraces
life with all its inherent tragedy. Jane is clearly Meryl’s precursor.
One of the most welcome features of Look Both Ways is its sexual
balance. In addition to Meryl, Nick, and Andy, there are three more
primary characters, Anna (Lisa Flanagan), who is Andy’s pregnant
girlfriend, the widow of the man killed in the accident (Daniella
Farinacci), and the man who was driving the train at the time of the
accident (Andreas Sobik). These six individuals are surrounded by a
rich ensemble of colleagues, family members, and friends, comprising a
cross-section of Adelaide (located near the center of Australia’s
southern coastline) but representing small “first world” cities
(In contrast Los Angeles, as depicted in Crash, is a male-dominated
world with relatively few women. Furthermore, while the male
characters in Crash have 3-dimensional lives, the women in Crash are
primarily defined by their roles in the lives of the male characters.
None of the female characters in Crash has a backstory.)
Andy and Anna are the most verbal characters in Look Both Ways, and as
they make their big decisions (keep the baby? stay together?), they
have the most amount of dialogue. Meryl and Nick are both more
visually than verbally-oriented, and that’s the first thing they come
to appreciate about each other. The morning after the accident, Nick,
out for an early run, rescues one of Meryl’s rejected watercolors from
her trash bin at almost the same moment Meryl is scrutinizing Nick’s
photograph of the accident scene (which dominates page one of her
Meryl’s vivid inner life is depicted in fluid animated sequences. She
doesn’t just imagine disasters. A trip to a local swimming pool with
her girlfriend finds her gliding past reefs and brilliantly-colored
tropical fish with her mind’s eye. Nick, on the other hand, runs
through huge stacks of still photographs in his mind. They provide
background on his extensive travels as well as insight into the
systematic research he does when he learns about his condition. These
staccato collages also add an element of suspense. Does Nick have the
capacity to connect dots?
Filmmaker Sarah Watt
Photo Courtesy of Kino International.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
“I went to great lengths, as
much as my experience would allow, to make this film not be
about manipulating the audience… It's just a slice of life, to
use a cliché, and we all have a different attitude to life. But
I like the idea that maybe you leave feeling a little bit
brighter than when you arrive.”
(Sarah Watt, from a 2005 interview with Australian professor
The widow and the driver have no dialogue. Their two stories are
presented in separate arcs; as the other characters resume their daily
lives, hushed scenes of the widow and the driver add punctuation marks
of grief, reconciliation, and hope. All six lives have been forever
changed by the accidental death of a man hit by a train. The widow and
the driver must face each other before either can begin to heal.
The obvious message of Look Both Ways is that there are no easy
answers for any of us. There is no way to make our parents, friends,
or family immortal. There is no way to keep our children safe. There
is no way to protect ourselves from death’s inevitability. Whether the
end of one specific life is caused by disease, accident, or whatever,
at some point, every life will end.
In itself, this is trite, of course, but Watt’s message comes at a
critical time. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular,
have been so traumatized by terrorism since 9/11, that we’ve willingly
traded precious civil liberties in the attempt to make our world
safer. Watt insists that we face the truth. The more we attempt to
protect ourselves, the more we cripple ourselves, making the life we
actually have less worth living. It’s a difficult message to fully
absorb, but it’s the message that we most need to hear right now.
Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of
Films for Two: The Online Guide for
Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print
and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the
JUF News, Chicago's
Jewish community monthly, and
Chicago Woman, a
bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active
member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois
Woman's Press Association.