Since his debut feature film in 1993, Australian auteur Stephan Elliott has made 10 films, none more successful or iconic than the exuberant drag queen road movie, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The writer/director returns this year with Swinging Safari (aka Flammable Children) a vibrant flashback to 1970’s Australia and, what is bound to become, one of his biggest successes since the cult stardom of Priscilla.
Growing up in a small seaside town, Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) has everything he could hope for: great friends, great pets, and a camera to make small films on. His folks are happy too, working hard during the week and partying hard at the weekend with neighbouring families, the Jones’ and the Hall’s. When a 200 pound whale washes up on shore, Jeff sees a perfect opportunity to make a film, whilst adolescence and success take their toll on the kids and adults in his life.
Elliott manages to craft a 70’s-centric slice of nostalgia without papering over the cracks. Too often contemporary films romanticise the 70’s and 80’s as the “better days”. As though everything was a daydream and the hangover from flower-power kept everyone lovey-dovey. If anything, the film is about how hard the parents of the 70’s tried to actualise the free-love of 60’s. Elliott is to be commended for crafting a flashback coming of age story that’s as much about the adults as it is the kids.
Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue are absolute gold, with Pearce serving hot 70’s haphazard dad, whilst Minogue goes against type with a timid but quietly hilarious buttoned-down mum of many. Both have comic timing they’ve probably never flaunted like this. There’s also the cute-factor in considering it’s the first time they’ve shared as screen since their time on Neighbours together in the 80’s. Julian McMahon and Radha Mitchell provide solid support as the glamourous Jones’, whilst Asher Keddie’s hyper-hygienic slosh Gale Marsh is one of the film’s most enjoyably off-kilter performances. As individual units the parents are all pristinely cast, but you don’t notice just how good everyone is until they’re tearing at each other with a collection of one liners Elliott might have been keeping in his pocket since adolescence. The same delicate balance of social interactions which fuels the film adolescent drama, strikes hard and fast with the adults too, though for very different reasons.
In a way, Swinging Safari is about the passing of an age, and the transient nature of life. It doesn’t shame anyone in particular, instead it looks back critically but with a lot of love for everyone in the room, love that proves totally infectious. The “Flammable Children” are a generation of kids reared on outdated approaches to the world but also one which enjoyed, variably, freedoms most kids now could never have. Though there’s plenty accidents and heartaches to hammer home how crappy that world could actually be. The cult-like induction into sex, forced introduction to booze and cigarettes, not to mention the casual alcoholism. The parents of Swinging Safari are just as clueless as the kids, they fuck up, make huge social blunders, and hold grudges which are significantly more damaging than the kids’ feuds.
All in all, Swinging Safari feels like Elliott’s forgiving letter to his childhood, one which revels in the haphazard delights of a teenage summer, the awkward pitfalls of swinging, and the heart-warming, if eventually gruesome, impact of a huge dead whale.
Dir. Stephen Elliott
Stars. Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Julian McMahon, Asher Keddie, Jeremy Sims, Atticus Robb