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Sunday
Aug172014

Around the Block

Around the Block
Directed by: Sarah Spillane
Released on: August 1st, 2014 [LIMITED]
Grade: 2 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

After a hiatus, American Dino Chalmers (Christina Ricci) has returned to Australia to be with her fiance, Simon (Daniel Henshall). A bright-eyed idealist, Dino takes a job at Redfern High School. Redfern High School is located in a particularly rough neighborhood in Sydney.

In the first of the film's numerous too-convenient tropes, Dino notices one of the students, Liam (Hunter Page-Lochard), a teenager who she filmed in the streets the day before, happens to be in her class.

Liam has troubles. He lives in a poor, violent neighborhood known as The Block. His Mum (Ursula Yovich) is unemployed; his father, Jack (Matt Nable), is in prison; and his older brother, Steve (Mark Coles Smith), plans to avenge his father's imprisonment and uncle's death.

As the film points out in the beginning, Liam is headed down a similar path to that of his father and brother. Liam, however, has a spark. If he can tap into his creative energies, Liam may just avoid a life of crime and despair (not that creativity does not often come with its own agents of despair).

This is where Dino comes in. She is the new drama teacher at Redfern and she wants the kids to learn and perform Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rather than instruct the old fashioned way of learning the world's most famous play by reciting the lines ad nauseum, Dino gets the kids to understand and appreciate Hamlet via comparing it to the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, examining the subtext, and how and why such an "old" English play could have relevance for the modern day immigrant living in Sydney.

The existential themes of the play's protagonist strikes a chord in the heart of the Liam. To be or not to be in such a cruel world? Thanks to the former profession of Liam's deceased uncle, Liam was familiar with the words of Hamlet, but now he is beginning to understand something deeper.

Written and directed by Sarah Spillane, Around the Block may have its exasperating flaws, but it cannot be accused of not having its heart in the right place. Here is a film about a teacher who puts her energies into kids who society would soon just forget, even if it means giving up a comfortable bourgeois life with Simon. Meanwhile, the film lends an identity to those living in poverty and the dignity of struggle against it through art.

Moreover, most of the cast is pretty good, especially Nable's subtle portrayal of a man who sees everything as he knows it disappearing.

On the other hand, there are a few pretentious scenes involving standing on rooftops and incredulous "race baiting" over a meal at a restaurant. Was Dino just oblivious to the racism of Simon and his friends before she moved in with him?

Then there are the numerous, manipulative and insipid music selections that really grate on one's nerves. I realize the filmmakers are reaching for a younger audience here, but the songs are not only lousy, many of them are obvious attempts to manipulate the feelings and reactions of the audience. And the way Around the Block adapts and actually uses a cover of Mister Mister's "Broken Wings" is as banal and unwelcome as the original 1985 song (and video).

Having written that, Around the Block is better fare geared for the youth than most movies currently out in theaters. At least Around the Block tries to address themes about adolescence, art and poverty.