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MOVIE REVIEW : Haunting Vision of First Love in ‘The Year My Voice Broke’

Times Film Critic

Could there be a reason in the world to re-examine adolescent angst ? And Australian angst at that? Absolutely. Its name is “The Year My Voice Broke,” a brilliantly acted and strangely haunting vision of life’s most hellish period. It comes to us having won the Australian Academy Award equivalent of best film, best director, best screenplay, best supporting actor and two principal acting nominations. (It opens Friday at the Music Hall.)

It could as easily be called “The Year My Heart Broke,” but that would be too un-cool an admission from Danny Embling, its bony, central 15-year-old who is also one-third of its feverish romantic triangle.

It’s 1962 in Braidwood, a remote New South Wales town just big enough to need one bar and one movie theater, and Danny has been working on his cool. He’s got the shades, the pompadour, the guitar; he knows every note of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"--Gene Pitney, watch out. Danny’s also seen “The Forbidden Planet” three times, and he’s got a deep interest in the occult. He is, in short, a neat kid.

Freya, a year older and loping into young womanhood fast, has been “his mate since we was kids.” The town orphan, isolated from her adoptive parents, bright, long-legged Freya is understandably Danny’s obsession. It will be part of the pain that Danny lives through to watch Freya fall in love with a charismatic “wrong sort” named Trevor, complete with cackling laugh and wild ways. He’s legendary at school for his soccer, his drinking and his habit of stealing the town’s one Mercedes for his own private time trials. He’s also the only older boy who’s decent to Danny.

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These three self-styled outsiders are like an updated “Rebel Without a Cause,” except that, heretical as it may sound, writer-director John Duigan has created them from a stronger trio of actors. There may not be a James Dean among them, but each has a singular subtlety and depth.

An acute sense of destiny hangs over these three, Freya most of all. From her opening proud feistiness, it’s as though she were doomed to become the girl this rigid town expected her to be. Noah’s character has the stamp of autobiography about him, his growth will come with time, and Trevor’s fate is as immutable as any James Dean hero’s.

Amazingly enough, only Ben Mendelsohn (Trevor), the supporting actor winner, was an experienced actor. Noah Taylor (Danny) and Loene Carmen (Freya) are both making debut performers. Their poignancy should be no surprise; Duigan was behind both “Winter of Our Dreams,” with Judy Davis, and the splendid “Mouth to Mouth,” a sharply characterized film about young jobless city-dwellers.

“The Year My Voice Broke” (rated PG-13 for its brief semi-nudity and salty language) comes from the producers of “Mad Max” and that movie’s fans will recognize Bruce Spence, its Ichabod Crane-like pilot. Here he plays the kids’ friend Jonah, a reclusive railroad signalman busy writing “Australia’s first erotic novel.” Malcolm Robertson, as Danny’s publican father, is another carefully shaded performance.

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Duigan has shaped “My Voice” around themes of fate and spiritual energy, which fit no country better than Australia, unless it’s the American South. Some of its final developments--Freya’s story--may be the film’s weakest points, yet in this setting they feel less like pulp melodramatics than they might. The country has a mystical aura that lends forgiveness to the very idea of such goings-on, and Geoff Burton has photographed these singular tablelands and wild peachy-mauve cliffs to look as if they might indeed shelter a modern Australian Heathcliff and his Cathy.

‘THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE’

An Avenue Pictures presentation of a Kennedy-Miller production. Producers Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell, George Miller. Writer-director John Duigan. Camera Geoff Burton. Production designer Roger Ford. Editor Neil Thumpston. Sound recordist Ross Linton. Associate producer Barbara Gibbs. With Noah Taylor, Loene Carmen, Ben Mendelsohn, Malcolm Robertson, Graeme Blundell, Lynette Curran, Judi Farr, Bruce Spence.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

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MPAA-rated: PG-13 ).


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