Dir. Dan Castle
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 107mins
Dir. Dan Castle
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 107mins
A couple of years ago there was an Australian film called Tan Lines. It was a fairly dreadful look at homosexuality and Aussie surf culture, a thoroughly interesting topic I might like to add, that treated its queer topic with a strange pitched level of surprising earnestness and poor execution and unrealistic storytelling. It was further hampered by amateur acting and bad writing. It did, however, provide endless opportunities for queer audiences to fawn over shirtless male bodies (although their age sure was cringe-worthy at times) and that seems to be about the maximum depth you will find in many GLBT-themed movies.
Another Australian film that wades through similar territory, released late in 2008, was Dan Castle's Newcastle, which is a far more successful - and yet, at times, just as frustrating - attempt at the surfer-via-homos theme. While the queer angle is clearly not the film's prime reason for existing, it is actually the one aspect that really shines brightest. The film predominantly focuses of Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan of TV's Blue Water High so surfing experience comes with the package), but it is the relationship between his gay twin brother Fergus, played by the rising star Xavier Samuel (September), and one of Jesse's alpha surfer buddies that provide the thrust of the movie.
The character of Andy (Kirk Jenkins in his acting debut) is one of those incredibly unrealistic fantasy character that every socially awkward gay teenager daydreams about. He is sensitive, caring, incredibly dreamy in the looks department and acts all nice to the outcast. It's a character that almost every gay coming-of-age tale has, and yet I didn't feel that it derailed Newcastle. It's never made explicitly clear whether he is gay or not - Fergus most definitely is since he has purple streaks in his hair and, apparently, hangs around at beach toilet blocks - but he sure does come off that way. There is a scene on the dunes of a beach that is actually quite tender and beautiful. It's a fine example of the sort of thing movies like Another Gay Movie just do not understand. Just because your characters are gay doesn't mean a gay audience is going to want to watch them. Here they are well-formed and well-acted. I'm sure plenty of the film's gay male audience will swoon.
The film as a whole, despite not being entirely queer-centric, is very much queer-friendly. Scene after scene shows the pack of lithe and muscular young men (apparently all supposed to be 16 and 17 years old) pictured above sans clothes. Nudity is prevalent as, apparently, skinny dipping is a popular past time in Newcastle's surfing community. There's even one scene involving nude underwater wrestling between the two brothers that will provide some viewers with naughty thoughts. Even a scene in which the straight Jesse masturbates in his bedroom is intercut with as many shots of shirtless surfers as it is with shots of sexy women running along the beach with their tits bouncing about. Further to that point, for a film that I presume was supposed to be aimed at a teenage male audience, there are more shots of male posteriors and flapping dicks than there are shots of attractive women in bikinis.
Of course, the filmmakers have other more predominant issues on their brain and as soon as the third act comes around it all but ditches the queer subplot except for a quick reminder here or there plus a post-credits scene that seems to confirm what the audience surely suspected. Outside of this angle the film doesn't hold up quite as well. It is a fairly routine coming-of-age tale - that horror term that all followers of Australian film have grown to cringe at - about a younger brother emerging out of the shadow of his more successful older sibling (Reshad Strik). Jesse isn't a very likeable character - he's either angry or angry - which is why the subplots seem to be more interesting. The film's climax is sudden and seemingly unfinished. We don't even get to see Jesse's big chance at the surfing competition he's been working the entire film towards achieving. It just ends. Did they run out of money?
The photography by Richard Michalak is impressive as most surfing cinematography seems to be these days. Editing by Rodrigo Balark is equally good and continues his trend of being amongst the highlights of all his work after movies such as Black Water and The Eternity Man. The acting, too, is definitely worthy of mention and is one of the film's high points. Far too often in Australian films of this variety, the acting is as amateurish as the writing, but the actors fill their characters with spirit, playfullness and all have moments of note even if it is just a laugh or a single line of dialogue.
That writer/director Dan Castle is openly gay (his queer-themed short films have won awards) actually makes Newcastle more disappointing. It's obvious that the gay storyline is the film's most powerful asset, but I suppose it wasn't in the financiers best interest to ditch the less interesting Jesse storyline to focus on the Fergus/Andy one. Films that focus solely on a gay romance are all but always pushed aside and resigned to the queer festival circuit. As it stands though Newcastle is an impressive feature debut and a hopeful sign of an interesting new voice in both Australian and queer cinema. B
PS; I'm not just being a perv. There are seriously next to no stills from this movie that aren't of it's cast minus shirts.