It goes without saying that Wes Anderson is one of the most influential directors working today. His films are boldly idiosyncratic and confidently realized with an attention to detail nearly unrivaled in modern cinema. The one flaw with Anderson’s work seems to be the many lackluster imitations — the attempts to capture the dynamic, reckless energy of his work that have all, under such evident obligation, failed to create anything distinctive or worthwhile. Such is the unfortunate fate of the Aussie coming-of-age dramedy “Girl Asleep,” because for all the moments of visual flair and earnest fun, it’s a film so indebted to Anderson (among obvious others) that it never manages to become something of its own.
Greta (Bethany Whitmore), recently transplanted to a new school, leads a dull life. Not only does she lack friends, but she’s content to keep it that way. But a funny thing happens to Greta on her first day of school: She meets a quirky, off-kilter boy named Elliot (Harrison Feldman), and a trio of acerbic popular girls, and both Elliot and these malicious girls want Greta’s friendship. Little is done in service of showing why people might want to befriend Greta, and just about everything we learn about her comes from how she explains herself to others. Thus Greta the character — outside of the delightful, expressive work by Whitmore — is a bit of an enigma. We’re told she’s a loser, but never shown why. We’re told she’s happy to be a fly on the wall, but never given a chance to see her revel in that status. Basically, we’re told a lot of things.
Greta’s life is turned upside down when her mother (Amber McMahon) throws her a surprise 15th birthday party and invites the whole school (something everyone, for some reason, makes fun of her for). The idea, her mother insists, is to get her out of her shell — something her hapless father (played by the film’s writer, Matthew Whittet) staunchly opposes. Throw in Greta’s angsty sister (Imogen Archer) and her sister’s cigarette-smoking, sex-symbol boyfriend (Eamon Farren), and the movie that follows is more or less a standard coming-of-age story, complete with bullies, pratfalls, cross-dressing, fights, and a tidy wrap-up.
For better or worse, though, Whittet and director Rosemary Myers had much greater ambitions for “Girl Asleep.” The film is visually vivacious, and while some it leans toward Anderson, many veer into a more magical realm (much in the spirit of Michel Gondry) and give the film a breath of life in its early goings when album covers and wall art are subtly, seductively alive. Then, though, the movie swerves even further. Strange (and beautifully realized) creatures begin appearing in Greta’s backyard, one of whom steals her special music box, and an all-powerful Huldra (the Scandinavian forest queen of folklore) rides onto the scene to help her get it back.
It’s a bold leap for the film. Visually, aside from a few painful flubs (budget-related or not, they call attention to themselves because of how good the rest of the film looks), “Girl Asleep” is exciting and often dazzling, and the score by Harry Covill, when working outside some of the more underwhelming songs on the soundtrack, is alluring (and probably under-used). But tonally, none of it really ever adds up. Elliot, who is as endearing as he is annoying, is such a caricature of a teenage boy that he only ever works in the comedic register, but the film asks for more than just laughs. The scenes in the forest are stark and verge on unnerving. Paired with the overall message of the film, which is almost painfully earnest, the wild oscillations become impossible not to notice — in part because, while Myers and Whittet know how to frame a scene like Wes Anderson, they don’t yet know how to use that quirky attention to detail to build character and setting and tone.
Regardless of its rather noticeable shortcomings, though, “Girl Asleep” is pretty fearlessly intrepid. But despite its stabs at an original narrative, these filmmakers (who are also a theater company) have yet to find their own voice — which, at its cheesily retro core, is exactly what “Girl Asleep” is about: that dark, foreboding forest of adolescence that we all must battle our way through to find the treasure on the other side — ourselves. [C]