Caterpillar Wish

Written Directed by Sandra Sciberras

Starring Susie Porter, Robert Mammone, Wendy Hughes, Phillip Quast, Khan Chittenden, Nicholas Bell, Victoria Thaine

The Caterpillar Wish is a movie described by star Susie Porter in terms she seems to think might work against it. ‘It’s another low budget film set in an Australian coastal town,’ she explains. ‘Journalists might say ‘Christ, not another one.’

But she believes in it, playing the character of Susan to the fullest in (as Porter rightly points out) another small town-set family drama. To many the premise will mean points scored against The Caterpillar Wish, but there’s already one big point in it’s favour; Porter herself.

If you’ve watched Mission Impossible III in recent weeks, the politics of being a bankable Hollywood star might have occurred to you as Tom Cruise once again portrays a character that could be referred to in the credits simply as ‘The Hero’.

Porter is something else. Her characters in films as disparate as The Monkey’s Mask, Better Than Sex, Paradise Road and Teesh and Trude are almost all in some way damaged and universally complex, revealed in layers Porter is expert at peeling back over time.

‘I suppose I’m just interested in human psychology and what makes people tick,’ she agrees when Xpress suggests she’s the polar opposite of Tom Cruise. ‘People fascinate me and nothing is what it seems in life. People’s view of [her character] Susan from the outside would be ‘topless barmaid, has sex with the local schoolteacher, nobody knows who her daughter’s father is’, it’s all a bit hush hush, but she’s completely different from all that.’

Far from the coddled Hollywood types (or wannabes) who usually take part in interviews to promote their films, this veteran of 26 film and TV shows, from Star Wars to Remote Area Nurse isn’t hidden behind legions of publicists, minders and other gatekeepers. Xpress was given her mobile phone number to call at the scheduled hour and when the discussion started to go over time she continued chatting happily away.

It’s a self-effacing nature that seems strangely at odds with another near-constant in Susie Porter’s characters — nudity. She laughs, insisting she’s not that kind of girl. ‘I’m so not interested in doing anything gratuitous, I grin and bear it when it’s important for the story, but really I like pyjamas and tea cosies,’ she says. ‘I’m such a nana at home.’ It’s a little hard to believe given Porter’s readiness to disrobe for the camera, but every time she appears semi or fully nude, it’s never less than crucial to the plot.

Nudity isn’t the best thing about The Caterpillar Wish, however. If anything, the scene in question is ironically both quiet and shocking and has an air of pity as you realise this loving but flawed mother works as a topless barmaid to support herself and her teenage daughter.

Emily (Thaine) has never known her father, and her mother Susan (Porter) keeps him locked away among the other secrets of her heart, including the parents who no longer talk to her.

Stephen (Mammone) is plagued with guilt over the murder/suicide of his wife and young daughter and one of the few friends the quiet and reserved Emily has apart from her boyfriend Joel. Stephen’s sister Elizabeth (Hughes) is married to the adulterous town police sergeant Carl (Quast) whom Emily begins to suspect might be her real father.

It’s a classic Shakespearean comedy of errors — without the comedy. Treated with serious beauty by writer/director Sciberras, it depicts an inquisitive girl who pries open the dark secrets of everyone around her in her quest to find out where she’s come from, secrets few people want revealed.

It’s not the first film to portray the tattered and fragile relationships in a small town, and it’s not the best one either. Some in the audience will feel time start to drag and the film never really kicks into anything like high gear.

But the story opens with characters that are privy to a history we’re yet to learn — you can see it under the surface of every pinched conversation and awkward silence, and that’s where The Caterpillar Wish’s strength lies. An accomplished cast of both veteran and little-known actors joins Porter, and they all command an impressive sense of their characters.

Together with lush and poetic cinematography of autumnal hues and slow focus pulls that have come straight from the eye of a natural visual artist, Sciberras is a director to watch.

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