Visualizing an emotional response such as trauma is tremendously difficult: there’s no rulebook, no codes and conventions, no set formula through which it can be achieved. Two-time Archibald-winning painter Del Kathryn Barton, who is well practiced in creating symbolic works full of psychedelic colors and quirky details, makes it a core feature of her confronting and audaciously crafted feature film debut, which follows a 12-year-old girl whose life is upended after she witnesses a rape and murder.
The event, which is edited in an unusually discordant style as if the very essence of film is struggling to deal with it, occurs early in the runtime, before Barton fully merges the protagonist’s state of mind with the form and content of the film, and unveils the other-worldly creations that provide its distinctive visual flavour. Shortly after the horrible MacGuffin, we see visions of an imaginary dragon Blaze (Julia Savage) draws on for strength, an amazingly tactile creation made up of feathery parts, strange felts and glittery bits, with huge bulbous black eyes and a unicorn-like horn .
There’s no Disneyfied sequence showing the young girl atop the creature, whooshing through the clouds while singing a chipper song. Co-written by Barton and Huna Amweero, the film’s core tension contrasts grim reality with fantastical creation, the protagonist’s imagination serving as a coping mechanism, something that’s made explicit in a courtroom scene depicting a miniature dragon in Blaze’s mouth that breathes fire on to the perpetrator.
Blaze has a caring father, played by Simon Baker, who is desperate to help, but there are no easy answers. The situation is immensely trying, particularly as Blaze was the only witness and her testimony is crucial. When she researches femicide online, and consults a friend about potentially confronting the killer, we realize she’s in way over her head; no creations of the mind are capable of remedying the real-world terrors around her.
Given the subject material, Barton is under no obligation to be subtle, and yet her direction spills into a heavy handedness that short-changes the audience’s intelligence. It’s obvious, for example, that Blaze’s story represents many others; we don’t need a symbolic shot of her leading a group of women in a march down the street.
Generally, the film is more cryptic than that, steeped in visual flourishes contemplating loss and rebirth. Recalling specific examples feels like isolating individual parts of a kaleidoscope. My mind returns all kinds of peculiar visions: of a tiny girl climbing out of the mouth of a mesh-encrusted corpse; of a miniature bus tumbling down a vacuum-like tunnel of cherries; of Blaze lying in bed, attached to inflatable gray hands three times the size of her body. Some effects were created through stop-motion animation and many manipulate scale; undersized elements particularly striking in their suggestion of worlds within worlds.
A clue to unpacking all this peculiar imagery arrives early on, when Blaze discovers a cicada shell she picks up and places on her jumper. This crusty, fragile thing is beautiful because it marks a transition, the insect having shed an outline of its youth during its progression into adulthood. This thought line feeds into a Puff the Magic Dragon-esque message about growing up, and Blaze as Jackie Paper, contemplating leaving behind things that are exquisitely special but have run their course.
The human element binding the various bits and pieces together is an intensely excellent performance from Savage, who brings so much to the table, terrifically portraying resoluteness amid inner turmoil and projecting a challenging range of emotions. Savage’s anchoring presence joins other young Australian actors who’ve recently excelled in hallucinogenic local films, such as Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep and Noah Wiseman in The Babadook.
A comparable production to Blaze, in its mixing grim reality with youthful flights of fancy, is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in an impoverished Louisiana community enlivened by the projections of a young girl’s imagination. Zeitlin’s truth approach grounds his great film in a strong, scabby kind of realism, while Barton’s root reality is already surreal, minimizing the distance between inner and outer worlds. The result is a hot, sticky, trippy fusion of wild style and painfully genuine emotion, with plenty of moments that take your breath away.