Australia Day has the ambition to use the already contentious celebration of Australia’s national day as a stage. The players are a series of racially diverse characters whose interlinked stories bring them and the audience face to face with the unspoken reality of racial tension in this country.
The film bears a resemblance to those cash grab interconnected stories set on (usually commercial) holidays: Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) etc. Director Kriv Stenders and writer Stephen M. Irwin may have intended for Australia Day to provide an unflinching portrayal of race in Australia, with moral lessons (laid on thicker than cream cheese via Bryan Brown voice over), to be learned at the conclusion of their trials; instead, the final product is a pile-up of formula and irredeemable representation under the lazy umbrella of storytelling convenience.
The story begins with three young characters on the run in Brisbane. The first thread begins with April Tucker (Miah Madden) fleeing the scene of a car accident at the end of a police chase that took the life of her sister, the driver Kaytee (Yasmin Honeychurch). The second thread sees Sami (Elias Anton. of ABC’s Barracuda) on the run from Jason (Daniel Webber) and Dean (Sean Keenan) after they find their sister Chloe (Isabelle Cornish) unconscious in a car following a bad reaction to recreational drugs. Jason and Dean are seeking an immediate violent reprisal. The final thread includes Lan (Jenny Wu), who is hobbling and bleeding, taking flight from imprisonment; she stumbles into the arms of Terry Friedman (Bryan Brown), a broke farmer staying in town to escape his failure, and more.
Stenders’ aesthetic rhythm in Australia Day contrasts the picturesque organisation of Brisbane suburbia, following characters running through open streets from a bird’s eye view; and then the dark spaces inside those unassuming spaces where our characters commit, or are victims of, heinous acts.
The most successful segments of Australia Day land squarely in story thread two, with two young men Sami (Elias Anton) and Jason (Daniel Webber) who both do an incredible job of being moral and humanist in the face of the frenzy of vigilante justice. While Jason’s sadistic brother Dean (Keenan) wants to ‘have fun’ with Sami for doing something that he believes could not possibly be consensual — while Chloe (Cornish) is too scared to reveal the truth of the matter. Jason has to make the toughest choices, to release Sami so that his brother and friends don’t kill him; and Sami must restrain his older brother Yaghoub (Phoenix Raei) and friends from replicating the acts of torture that he was released from. Both young actors wholly engage you; they’ve got some intangible hypnotic quality that makes you looks for them in any scene.
The third thread of the story — the sex trafficking storyline with Lan Chang (Jenny Wu) — appears to be an allegory for Australia’s relationship to China. As the emerging force in the world’s economy one supposes the filmmakers are taking aim at the compromises our government must be making to keep our largest economic contributor happy. Bryan Brown’s armed forces veteran and farmer Terry Friedman is dancing around his reasons for being back in Brisbane.
The fundamental issues of the film germinate in the first story thread, where Stenders and Irwin butcher the portrayal of April and Kaytee’s family. Two Indigenous daughters are living in a hellish situation with a sexually abusive father. Despite multiple reports from police officers observing physical abuse they’re not rescued before they’re forced to act or be stuck in a cycle of abuse. April avoids the authorities, desperate to be reunited with her mother. She seeks her out at rehab clinics, last known addresses and eventually in an inner city heroin den. The audience is then subjected to watching April experience her mother’s descent to rock bottom, scrounging for her next hit in front of her daughter and blocking her out of existence for the relief of that injection. April hits her own emotional rock bottom during her interaction with her almost unrecognisable, drug addled mother. Sonya Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens) has been in pursuit of April for the duration of the film and traces her steps to alley cum drug den. Sonya finds April’s mother, laid out, frothing at the mouth, suffering a drug overdose from the ‘hit’ that was more important than her daughter. This is the last straw in a film that perpetuates ugly stereotypes, rather than smashing through them.
There is absolutely no purpose for this final emotional obstacle to take place for the character. The character’s climactic moment, which I will not spoil here — as I fear I’ve spilled too much already — did not need this incident to occur for us to arrive at a conclusion for April or the film. If Irwin decided to make it so that April’s mother couldn’t be found (for any number of reasons — perhaps the simplest that she was in a rehab facility interstate or just outside of running distance) the character’s loneliness and fear remains the same. Instead the gratuity adds insult to injury. We’re already a country now infamous for what comedian and author Tony Martin called the “heroin addicts in love” genre; and now we’re propagating further cycles of drug use in an already disenfranchised community, in a film about the most contentious day for our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Australia Day fails where Down Under: a comedy about the Cronulla riots encapsulates the madness, the conflict and racist seam lurking in White Australia, and We Don’t Need a Map: Warwick Thorton’s examination of the Southern Cross throughout indigenous and White Australian history, succeed. Down Under and We Don’t Need a Map are both explosive and challenging for their audiences to take, but ultimately take the time for exploration and compassion. Australia Day is stuck in an interconnecting formula that propagates stereotypes, and wedges gaps between racial tribes that no closing montage can correct.