Hating Alison Ashley

March 17th, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Directed By Geoff Bennett

Starring Delta Goodrem, Saskia Burmeister, Jean Kittson, Craig McLachlan, Tracey Mann, Richard Carter

It’s a bit disarming meeting Saskia Burmeister, star of Hating Alison Ashley. You expect an insecure and slightly shabby teenager, and the engaging, impeccably dressed, brightly talkative young woman takes you by surprise. She’s got a clear, strong voice that cuts through the noisy Perth hotel restaurant and uses her hands and body language to communicate decisive thoughts and ideas.

Erica, Saskia’s character in Hating Alison Ashley, is similarly theatrical and expressive. I wonder if that means the role wasn’t a big stretch for her.

‘That was actually the most difficult thing to do,’ Burmeister recalls, ‘I tend to like performances that are subtle. The camera can be a long way away and the shot can be just of your face, but then your face is going to be fifty feet high so you don’t want to be pushing everything. I had [director Geoff Bennett] come up to me and say a few times ‘let go and just have fun’. I had to find why she was expressive to back it up.’

So does playing one of the most loved characters in fiction for young Australians pile on the pressure? Actually not — Burmeister had never even read it. ‘I managed to skip it during my school days for some reason,’ she says, ‘so I read the script first and then I read the book and thought it was fantastic.’

It must have been helpful for an actor who wants no preconceptions about the character, but after auditioning for the part, Burmeister returned to Australia from an LA trip to a surprise. ‘Every young Aussie girl auditions for the same parts,’ she says, ‘and I met some other actresses who’d auditioned, and they all said ‘Everybody wanted that part!’ I just came in and did the job and performed what was on the page.’

And with a star set to rise — possibly as high as that of her well-known co star — is she prepared for LA parties, first class travel and champagne at Hollywood clubs owned by movie stars?

‘I don’t know how comfortable I am with that,’ she smiles. ‘I admire the careers of Cate Blanchett, Judi Davis, Geoffrey Rush — well-known actors rather than stars. I’m not searching for any sort of celebrity. If I got used to the red carpet I’d quit and live on an island until I got back to the truth of acting, which is the craft.’

Erica Yurken is a good role for Burmeister to sink her teeth into if she loves the craft; emotional, melodramatic and centre frame most of the time (not including a voiceover), but does the film live up to the performance — especially with the weight of so much expectation?

Being accepted when you’re in your teens (when you’re sure your family and schoolmates are all medical experiments gone wrong) is a recognisable theme. The last time it was tackled from a uniquely Australian viewpoint was in 2000’s Looking for Alibrandi, a more mature film than Alison Ashley.

That’s partly because in the original novel, the characters of Erica and Alison are 11 years old — it’s more fertile ground for the childish, outright jealousy of Alison Ashley than the moral conundrums about the larger world of economic and cultural backgrounds from Alibrandi.

But Hating Alison Ashley isn’t aimed at twentysomethings looking for a taut psychological drama, it’s more likely to appeal to the armies of tween girls whose bedroom walls are covered in posters of Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff and — of course — Delta Goodrem.

Goodrem is the titular object of hatred when she arrives at a hellhole public school where Erica (Burmeister) navigates life in the school pecking order and her dysfunctional family. An aspiring actress and hypochondriac, Erica is enamoured by the arrival of the beautiful and seemingly perfect Alison, immediately wanting nothing more than to be her.

Her desire turns to jealousy pretty fast and she spends the rest of the movie treating most of the people around her very nastily without cause — it’s unclear whether the script was meant to paint Erica as such a nasty piece of work because for most of the movie you have a hard time dredging up any sympathy for her.

Subplots and characters that surround Erica and Ashley are indistinct and the script doesn’t do much to sell them. Erica’s family, the teachers at school, the love triangle between the two leads and school punk Barrie all flesh out the running time but don’t hang comfortably from the story.

Interesting to see another former TV comedy fixture in a supporting role (Jean Kittson as the girl’s brutish teacher, following in the footsteps of Marg Downey who appeared in the background of 2004’s Under the Radar). And Craig McLachlan, only ever cropping up in minor roles in woeful comedies nowadays, plays comic relief in a character where the ‘comic’ lasts about a minute and then just turns stupid.

As the darling of the Australian media, Goodrem is perfect when her beautiful face is smiling from a magazine cover, but called on to act, she flouders badly, failing to offer any emotional resonance.

As Erica, Burmeister is left to carry almost the entire film on her shoulders. She occasionally breaks into high-school-drama flourishes of overacting, but she’s definitely eager, and her charisma in giving Erica life is the high point in just another lame Australian comedy let out of the gate far too early.

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