As I walked out into the street after seeing Look Both Ways, an overwhelming surge of reality hit me. I saw people walking fast, slow, with their heads down or looking straight ahead, engrossed in their lives so that they didn’t stop to consider other passers-by. I was struck by the banality of it all, the simplicity, when taken at face value. Needless to say, Look Both Ways replaces this seemingly dull real world with a cast of erratic characters and a series of contrivances, viewing this universe with a wide but limiting focus that puts to bed any chance of the story (or stories) having any lasting impact. Shame, really, because it started out with so much promise.
For a film that bundles in no less than 8 meaningful characters, Look Both Ways, at around 100 minutes in length, is about 45 minutes too short. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: if you want to engage the audience, limit yourself to getting a few things right rather than trying to wow them with many things. This is Watt’s first feature, and I say she was too ambitious in her writing – shear it back, cut some characters, lose some scenes, make others longer, then you’ve got a good movie. As it is, most of the actors are at least once asked to step outside the confines of the character they’ve built in order to offer some kind of revelation, and this just doesn’t ring true. The story isn’t allowed to grow by itself; instead, Watt tries to force a grand conclusion, which ends up doing none of her characters justice.
While her abrupt changes in tone and lines out of place stick with me, so does her interesting directorial style. Most of the film is framed simply and effectively, but there are brief interludes using different media – hand-drawn animation and still photography – that offer insightful breaks in the narrative. They don’t always work in the context of the scene, and some of the epileptic flashing of images on the screen did my head in, but they are innovative techniques that deserve praise. Just tone them down a bit. Her use of music and non-incidental sound, though… well, to put it bluntly, it was derivative and didn’t fit. In most cases, the film would have played better over silence.
The acting is fine, with particularly good performances from the ever-excellent William McInnes and the heretofore unseen Justine Clarke in what one would call the central roles of Nick and Meryl. Of all the characters, they are the most involving – not surprising given that far more screen time is devoted to them than anyone else, but the quality of acting really shines through, particularly when they don’t have anything to say.
This has been billed as an Australian Magnolia or Crash, but I would veer from that and say it has more in common with Zach Braff’s Garden State. Both films, by first time directors, appear to be slight and whimsical but end up aiming for something loftier and more lasting, which remains just out of reach. It isn’t escapist cinema, but it’s miles from verité; while there is potential – big questions are asked about the fundamental element of humanity: mortality – it isn’t followed through, as attempts to answer such questions will inevitably fall on their face. I will be interested to see what Watt comes up with next, though. She’s confident, which can only be a good thing in a filmmaker. A better balance, and she might be onto something.