"Look Both Ways" is a fearless movie about a fearful subject, an unusually empathetic and quite funny film that deals with death and dying in the most offbeat and casually life-affirming way. Exceptionally smart, playful and perceptive, "Look Both Ways" confronts things that people would rather avoid. Able to grapple with big issues in a style that is both heartfelt and idiosyncratic, it enhances confidence in cinema as a medium that can deal with the reality of existence in all its painful and wonderful randomness, that completely embraces the inevitably messy business of being alive.
Winner of several Australian Film Institute awards, including best picture and director, as well as the Toronto Film Festival's Discovery Award, given by a jury of more than 750 critics, "Look Both Ways" is nominally the first feature for writer-director Sarah Watt, but that designation is deceptive. For Watt is no recently graduated film school wunderkind; she's been an award-winning writer-director of animation for 15 years. Which, given the inescapable maturity and integrity that characterizes this film, is not exactly a surprise.
Meryl (Justine Clarke), "Look Both Way's" protagonist, is also an artist, a painter whose watercolors often appear on sympathy cards. Given what we see of what goes through her mind, she's in need of sympathy herself. Meryl is one of those people who has a habit of imagining possible disasters at every turn. Should she be on a train, she imagines it jumping the tracks. In the swimming pool she thinks of shark attacks. A random passerby becomes a masked attacker. Catastrophe is simply her fantasy default position.
We know this about Meryl because whenever she goes on one of these paranoid jags, we see a brief bit of animation detailing what's going through her mind. (Watt, not surprisingly, was responsible for these sequences as well as Meryl's watercolors.)
It is Meryl, of all people, who turns out to be the sole eyewitness to a real tragedy. On her way home from her father's funeral, she sees a man accidentally hit and killed by a freight train. It's as if one of her gloomy fantasies has become real for someone else, not her.
In a way that seems random but isn't, "Look Both Ways" spends a weekend with Meryl and a group of people (for instance the dead man's widow and the train's engineer and his disaffected punk son) whose paths may or may not cross but who all have a connection to that accident. There is, for instance, Andy (Anthony Hayes), a journalist with a chip on his shoulder who writes a column on the accident and finds out during the weekend that his girlfriend, Anna (Lisa Flanagan), is pregnant with their baby, which is the last news Andy wants to hear.
Then there is hotshot photographer Nick (William McInnes, a major Australian TV star who's married to the director). Informed at the film's opening that he has cancer, he is on his way home to digest the news when he takes an accident-related photograph and meets Meryl at the scene. We can feel a wary connection possibly forming between these tentative people, inhibited by Meryl's lacking in self-confidence and Nick's health news giving him both an increased sense of urgency about his life and worry that makes him wonder what he is getting into.
Writer-director Watt expertly orchestrates the ebb and flow of all these relationships, and others too, making good use of a sharp and unexpected sense of humor and a variety of stylistic flourishes.
When Nick gets the news of his cancer, quick cutting allows us to literally see his life flash before his eyes, and we later have access to his extended memories of his own father's death. And all of this takes place against a backdrop of an unfolding national story about a major train wreck that took several lives. Not even looking both ways, apparently, can protect you from life.
One theme of "Look Both Ways" is how we deal with the presence of catastrophe in our lives. We all know in theory, as Meryl says, that dying is "the natural order of things," but how you come to terms with the implications of the end in your own life is quite another matter.
What saves this subject from getting as forbidding as it sounds is that filmmaker Watt understands that no matter what the circumstances, people cannot help but be human, with all the marvelous connections, comic contradictions and bright moves toward life that that implies. One recurring visual motif in "Look Both Ways" is of swooping flocks of birds, images that symbolize the film's interlocking concerns with community and flight.
Watt, who's done a previous short about a pregnancy that resulted in the death of her baby, has ended this film with the dedication "for friends and family who've left us too soon." But she immediately follows that by playing Lord Pretender's zany calypso classic, "Never Ever Worry," over the final credits. It's in this crazy knife's-edge balance between tragedy and comedy that "Look Both Ways" comes into its own.
"Look Both Ways"
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
A Kino Intl. release. Writer-director Sarah Watt. Producer Bridget Ikin. Director of photography Ray Argall. Editor Denise Haratzis. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at the Playhouse Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500; Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581; Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd.; Encino (818) 981-9811.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times