In the three feature films that Sue Brooks has made so far, we have driven into the wide, open spaces of the inland to look at what makes us tick. It’s a canny strategy, this journey into the red heart, and the two first films that Brooks has to her name, Road to Nhill and Japanese Story, show it has been a popular one. The journey as motif, a road trip towards the centre with a motley crew of characters, their panoply of quirks on display, can hold a mirror to us all.
In Road to Nhill, a party of lady lawn bowlers are upended on an outback road in north-west Victoria and have to wait ever such a long time for help. In Japanese Story a young woman accompanies a visiting businessman through the ancient, red bluffs of Pilbara when their burgeoning relationship is suddenly over before it has begun. Brooks has a knack for making strange.
A montage of gorgeous natural textures opens Looking for Grace, in which we head out on the road again. Among them a bird’s eye view of stretch of road bisecting the wheat belt of Western Australia, on its way east. We track a bus with a couple of runaway teens on board, apparently headed for a concert in Ceduna. Sixteen-year-old Grace (newcomer Odessa Young who could pass for Miranda Otto’s other younger sister) and her friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson).
Before Grace’s devastated parents, Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh), set out from Perth to find her—with retired detective (Terry Norris)—friends gather at their home to provide comfort. It’s here you realise there is something odd going on. The words are tumbling out but they never get a grip. No one is really connecting.
If we have moved on from the gruff, monosyllabic retorts that passed for conversation in Australian films in earlier times, the communication here is not a lot better. Is there really still so much left unsaid between us? The spaces between characters is signified in images of a vast desert emptiness, and by the beige and bland interior of the family home.
In transit, the girls split when Grace is attracted to the handsome young stranger who boards the coach and begins exchanging glances with her. Three’s a crowd and Sappho opts out. But in an instant there is only one when Jamie (Harry Richardson) sneaks out the next morning, making off with thousands of dollars in cash. Grace had emptied the safe at home.
For most of the time we can only speculate on the reasons why Grace stole her dad’s business takings and ran away. It was no problem for her: she had helped him set up the combination and considered it her money too! The ‘Sorry Mum’ note she left behind could seems a teasing McGuffin until the resolution, when motivations are revealed. Withholding the reasons for Grace’s escape as adeptly as it does, is one of the film’s triumphs.
The flat and uninflected exchanges between people that leave so much unsaid are less effective, although they make a point. Whether or not you agree with Brooks’ perspective, a rather out-dated one I think, there is comedy here too and a gimlet eye for what can be satirised in our personal interactions.
Having key characters tell the story of Grace’s leaving home from their perspective, provides some insight, importantly into Dan’s character. However the diverse points of view in the narrative structure are not as revelatory as you would hope. A kind of restraint holds things in check until that final devastating rupture.
This change in direction reminded me of the jolt I experienced with Japanese Story. It takes a brave filmmaker to attempt it, but the point that life can be like that is hard to deny.