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Harrison Gilbertson, Geena Davis, Accidents Happen Harrison Gilbertson, Geena Davis, Accidents Happen
GRIEVING—ITS NATURE, ITS STAGES (AS IN THE DISPUTED KÜBLER-ROSS MODEL), AVOIDANCE OR REFUSAL TO LET GO OF IT—IS ONE OF LIFE’S MORE IMPONDERABLE STATES OF BEING. ITS SENSE OF LOSS IS DEEPLY BOUND UP WITH REFLECTIONS ON LOST OPPORTUNITIES AND UNFULFILLED DREAMS AND IS SOMETIMES IMBUED WITH FEELINGS OF GUILT, OF HAVING CAUSED HURT OR EVEN DEATH.

This is the raw material for director Andrew Lancaster and writer Brian Carbee’s remarkable feature film, Accidents Happen, a nervy, funny suburban parable about a family and their neighbours enmeshed in a web of accidents, the causes sometimes innocent, and the complexities of grieving, loyalty and responsibility. Gradually the film’s tone shifts from ironic detachment to demanding emotional engagement as grieving and denial each reach critical mass.

The film opens in 1974 in lower middle class American suburbia with a nasty accident—a neighbour sets fire to himself and stumbles in slow motion, flaming, towards a small boy, Billy, playing beneath a garden sprinkler. It’s an ugly scene but a curiously beautiful one, as if a child’s dreamlike recollection. A little later the boy’s family go to a drive-in where they watch The Three Stooges (with their trademark mix of malice and accident) and suffer eldest son Gene’s bad public behaviour, enacted with his close friend Doug, a neighbour’s son. On the way home the resulting argument plus Billy’s move to the front seat and the father’s distracted driving result in a serious crash. These early scenes, a retrospective prelude, establish the initial mood of the film, brisk, shocking, witness to the role of chance and the complexities of cause, effect and responsibility.

Now it’s 1982: Billy (Harrison Gilbertson) is 15. His father (Joel Tobeck) has left the family for a new marriage, his mother Gloria (Geena Davis) is in bitter denial, keeping the world at bay with dark witticisms and refusing to see Gene, who is in care and visited regularly by Larry (Harry Cook), the second eldest boy, who blames Billy for the car crash (and, cruelly, for the fiery death of their neighbour). Billy, in the manner of his own grieving, emulates Gene by befriending Doug (Sebastian Gregory) and tempting him into misadventure, but their brief partnership causes a very serious accident. From this flow the events that—regardless of the resistance of the protagonists—will bring not today’s much vaunted ‘closure’ but at least release from the stranglehold of grief.

As tense and explosive as this scenario later becomes, the filmmakers nonetheless sustain just enough distance (Gloria’s jibes, Billy’s retorts, glimpsed character eccentricities, coincidences and smaller accidents) to maintain an essentially comic rather than tragic vision. There’s even a touch of deus ex machina in the plot resolution, but in the meantime the emotional drama deepens—trust is betrayed, physical pain inflicted on self and other and relationships are sundered, but equanimity is finally achieved and frozen lives are allowed to thaw and begin again.

A great strength of the film is its ensemble playing with uniformly good performances, script and directorial attention foregrounding each of the characters. It’s quietly done, for example, in the case of Dottie (Sarah Woods), whose suspicions never corrupt her neighbourliness, and more acutely with Ray, Billy’s feckless father, who comes into clearer focus as the film progresses: “But we can’t just wait for Gene to die, Gloria. We’ll waste away with him...Lose all feeling. Turn into vegetables. Make a salad.” Even the most minor figures are deftly sketched: the girl who must hug everyone suddenly and too vigorously at a wake, or Aunt Louise who disruptively appears there too: “Here’s to the living. You know what they say? When God closes a door he opens a beer.” Another neighbour, Mrs Smolensky, the wife of the immolated man, appears briefly if recurrently in what becomes a key symbolic role in a tightly crafted screenplay.

Geena Davis’ Gloria is central to the film, although she’s not always on the screen. Gloria’s loss of two of her children, then her husband to another woman, of her uterus to a hysterectomy and later her trust in Billy is a load she struggles to bear when not withdrawn—playing Bingo with friends, going on a date, always joking (“If I’m lucky, the Department of Health will board me up”). There are revealing moments when she cracks, for example after the wake: “I always think the next funeral will be Gene’s. I can’t go home,” she weeps. When she fears that Billy is turning into the delinquent Gene she atypically can barely speak. When Billy says he can’t recall much about his dead sister Linda, Gloria’s fury demands that he think again, which apologetically he does, because he can with his mother.

The relationship between Billy and Gloria is of easy intimacy, in the way he advises on the choice of earrings before her date or joins in droll exchanges: “Gloria: I’m so hungry I could eat a crowbar and shit a jungle gym. Billy: Good. All those loose screws you have will finally come in handy.” Davis invests power in Gloria’s facade, reveals its fragility and displays a warmth in her relationship with Billy. But hoping to see the overt smiling charm of Davis in this tough mother role risks missing the subtleties of a strong performance.

When Billy finally confesses the full extent of his sins, he argues, “I was trying to protect you.” Gloria retorts, “I don’t need protecting, Billy. I need someone who is on my side, damn it.” In Harrison Gilbertson’s fine performance as Billy, we see an adolescent trapped by accidents not all of his own making, but complicated by lies and loyalties and a rapidly escalating number of ethical crises—dealing almost simultaneously with discrete problems involving his mother, father and Doug and the police. Gilbertson plays Billy with a quiet charm, who at his lowest point sounds not unlike his mother: “I’m sorry you lost your father but this could turn into a great big shit shower with, like...no soap.”

Afforded the luxury of two viewings of the film and a reading of the screenplay, I’m convinced that Accidents Happen is a significant Australian film. Yes, it’s written by an American about his America of the early 1980s, and, yes, Geena Davis aside, it’s directed, acted and otherwise made by Australians and filmed here. For some that’s a problem. But the writer has lived in Australia for 15 years and the film is faithful to his vision. The actors’ accents are largely fine, as accurate if not more so than certain Australian actors who frequently play in Hollywood films with their trans-Pacific accents. Some criticism of the film reminds me of the rejection of Frank Moorhouse’s novel Grand Days from consideration for the Miles Franklin Award on the grounds that it was set in Europe, even though the principal character was Australian. Other criticism finds it difficult to locate the film, as if it’s totally alien. Surely, if with its own idiosyncrasies, it sits firmly in the tradition of the domestic dramas of American indie filmmaking (recently, Little Miss Sunshine, The Savages, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Juno etc) and more commercial ventures in the same idiom like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (both by British director Sam Mendes).

Accidents Happen is bracing cinema—funny, cruel, suspenseful and wise, never letting the viewer off the moral hook with loveable characters and a predictable tale. Its tonal, structural and thematic integrity is supported by the slightly heightened aesthetic of the production and art design (Elizabeth Mary Moore, Angus MacDonald) and the cinematography (Ben Nott), evoking the 80s while intensifying the everyday in what is a very contemporary, shadowy parable—and something more than mere realism. It’s a tale underscored with an essentially comic vision that allows for redemption and regeneration in a small suburban cosmos, if against the considerable odds of an accidental universe. Great writing, directing and acting make Accidents Happen’s wickedly tough, idiosyncratic vision of grieving a truly memorable experience.


The world premiere of Accidents Happen was in April 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and in June 2009 it was shown in the Sydney Film Festival. Australian screenings commenced April 22, 2010.

Accidents Happen, director Andrew Lancaster, writer Brian Carbee, cinematography Ben Nott, editor Roland Gallois, composer Antony Partos, producer Anthony Anderson, production design Elizabeth Mary Moore, art direction Angus MacDonald, Redcarpet Productions; http://www.accidentshappenthemovie.com/

This article first appeared online April 27

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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