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Lives Unfold in Campion’s Debut Gem, ‘Two Friends’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago Jane Campion made her feature debut with the terrific “Two Friends,” which only now is receiving an American release although it is on the same high level of accomplishment as “The Piano” and “An Angel at My Table,” albeit on a smaller scale. Made for Australian TV, “Two Friends” took six months to restore, the one 16-mm print struck in 1986 having worn out and been junked years ago.

Campion is working from a script by Helen Garner, who tells her story backward, an inspired idea that works just as effectively as it does in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” or Harold Pinter’s “The Betrayal.”

Beginning in July 1985 and moving back through four sequences to October 1984, the film initially causes us to wonder how two such different Sydney teenagers could ever have been close friends. When we meet Kris Bidenko’s 16-year-old Kelly she sports a bleached punk hairstyle, has dropped out of school and is living on the dole as a squatter with a 20-year-old boyfriend at Bondi, Sydney’s equivalent of Venice Beach. In contrast, Emma Coles’ Louise is a focused, studious 15-year-old wearing a private school uniform. Kelly has become so erratic in keeping in touch with Louise that Louise remarks that Kelly is “scarcely a person anymore.”

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As Campion moves back in time the two girls become increasingly similar, and the film becomes a record of how a young person’s spirit can be crushed by unthinking adults. Both Louise and Kelly are children of divorce. Whereas Louise has the good fortune to have parents who are mature and amicable--Louise’s mother, Janet (Kris McQuade), is a sensible, loving and supportive mother--Kelly must cope with a passive mother, a negative stepfather and indifferent father.

The great dream of both girls is to attend a prestigious private girls school, which after a parents’ day program Kelly’s stepfather (Peter Hehir), clearly a onetime ‘60s radical, dismisses as “reactionary and elitist.” He’s probably right, but he overlooks completely that the institution is renowned for its rigorous course of instruction and, most important, how badly Kelly wants to attend it. Janet is also probably right when she says she could do no good in trying to get the stepfather to change his mind--she’s never even met the man--despite her daughter’s imploring her to try. The gesture might have meant something to the distraught Kelly, who has good reason to believe that no adult in her life truly cares about her.

What makes this impeccably acted small film such a gem is its sense of life being lived before our eyes and at the same time being observed by Campion and Garner (who also wrote Gillian Armstrong’s similarly acute “The Last of Chez Nous”) with extraordinary perception and compassion. The rhythms of everyday life that this sun-filled film captures so perfectly make the casualness with which the sweet and intelligent Kelly is discarded all the more chilling.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: Along with adults the film is suitable for mature early teenagers.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Two Friends’

Kris Bidenko: Kelly

Emma Coles: Louise

Kris McQuade: Janet

Peter Hehir: Malcolm

A Milestone Film presentation of an Australian Broadcasting Corp. production. Executive producer-director Jane Campion. Screenplay by Helen Garner. Cinematographer Julian Penney. Music director Martin Armiger. Production designer Janet Patterson. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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