Friday February 2, 2001

     "Amy" is a skilled heart-tugger from Australia that verges on rock opera in its telling of a young mother's struggle to help her small daughter to overcome a loss of speech and hearing.
     Director Nadia Tass and her husband and filmmaking partner, writer-producer-cinematographer David Parker, play against TV-movie-of-the-week cliches inherent in the material to create punchy, vital entertainment that gives mother and daughter equal importance and whose story unfolds in an engaging and imaginative context. Tass and Parker are best known for "Malcolm" (1986) and "Rikki and Pete" (1998); less effective was their 1991 Hollywood venture, "Pure Luck," which starred Danny Glover and Martin Short in a remake of the French comedy-adventure "La Chevre."
     Because the film opens with a shot of a rock concert in progress, we surmise, before flashbacks gradually confirm it, that its singer-star, Will Enker of the Zinks (Aussie rocker Nick Barker, who composed four songs for the film), is the husband of Tanya (Rachel Griffiths) and father of their beautiful little daughter Amy (Alana De Roma).
     Holed up at the outback farm of her father, Tanya is dodging villainous child welfare workers who eventually drive her to the big-city anonymity of Melbourne, where all she can afford is a small run-down house. Clearly, something drastic has happened involving Will that has turned Tanya's life upside down and left Amy so traumatized she can no longer hear or speak.
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     The pungent setting for Tanya and Amy's new life in Melbourne represents an inspired choice by the filmmakers. We swiftly meet their new neighbors, among them Zack (Jeremy Trigatti), a sweet-natured kid with a violent alcoholic father (William Zappa) and a despairing mother (Kerry Armstrong), who offers friendship and acceptance to Amy.
     Across the way are a couple of none-too-swift brothers, Luke (Torquil Nelson) and Wayne (Sullivan Stapleton), forever working on their old car, and a prim, nosy, always complaining old woman, Mrs. Mullins (Mary Ward), who is obsessed with watering her tiny patch of green lawn. Most important is an edgy young songwriter, Robert (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a dense, hyper sister Anny (Susie Porter), intent on fending off the advances of Luke and Wayne.
     Amy is taken with Robert, a sensitive young man beneath a spiky veneer, and he is astounded when she starts singing along with him and his songs. Tanya is not easily convinced, to put it mildly, that her daughter is beginning to hear and express herself after three years of silence. There's good reason for skepticism on the part of Tanya, a woman who has gone through much more than we at first could imagine.
     Meanwhile, a kindly, experienced therapist (Frank Gallacher) manages to overcome the fiercely defensive Tanya to allow him to try to help her daughter to whatever extent he can.
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     What's of interest here is how the filmmakers stress that interaction with their new neighbors, both bad and good, is healthy for Tanya as well as Amy. The filmmakers are not afraid to resort to melodrama or broad earthy comedy, but gradually the film takes on an increasingly operatic quality, not just for its emotional intensity but also how music plays a crucial role in transforming their lives.
     To this end Phillip Judd has composed a splendid and varied rock score, and the soundtrack includes numerous aptly chosen songs. When Amy starts singing in earnest, she proves leather-lunged; with her "Stand by Your Man," performed with Zack accompanying her on hubcaps used as cymbals, she sings out like a kiddie performer on the old "Ed Sullivan Show."
     De Roma's Amy is no mere pint-sized showstopper but a most believable little girl coping with more than her conscientious mother realizes. Griffiths, who came to prizewinning attention in 1994's "Muriel's Wedding," glows in a role that would be thankless in lesser hands, because it requires that she be bitter and glum for so much of the time. Griffiths suggests that there is beneath Tanya's often angry surface a young woman capable of enjoying life again.
     Turning movies into stage shows seems always to betray a lack of imagination, but "Amy" is the exception. It could be the basis of a terrific Andrew Lloyd Webber-style all-out musical; as a film, it scores in its rowdy yet touching appeal.


Amy, 2001. PG-13, for some domestic violence, disturbing images and brief language. A World Wide Motion Pictures Corp. release. Director-producer Nadia Tass. Writer-producer-cinematographer David Parker. Editor Bill Murphy. Music Phillip Judd. Costumes Christiana Plitzco. Production designer Jon Dowding. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Rachel Griffiths as Tanya Rammus. Alana De Roma as Amy Enker. Ben Mendelsohn as Robert Buchanan. Nick Barker as Will Enker.