Rage in Placid Lake

Year: 2003
Director: Tony McNamara
Writer: Tony McNamara
Cast: Ben Lee, Rose Byrne, Garry McDonald, Miranda Richardson
No, it's not the sequel to that American comedy thriller about the giant alligator a few years ago. It is the new film by TV writer Tony McNamara, and rocker Ben Lee's acting debut.

Even though it isn't a big compliment in itself (owing to the rubbish that's been coming out of the Australian comedy genre lately), The Rage in Placid Lake is the best Australian comedy (if not the best movie) this year – even when not compared to its peers.

It's more a representation than a story, full of hyper-real characterisations, situations and the dramatic (and comic) tension between them. In fact, most events and characters are almost symbols of a way of life, the sphere of unfortunate young school leaver Placid Lake (Lee) being the crossroads where they meet (and sometimes collide).

As an allegory, it tells of the choices facing the youth in our society, especially this one particular youth and his 'uniqueness'. Seemingly self-assured thanks to the ultra-tolerant, left-leaning upbringing of his flower children parents (Garry Macdonald and Miranda Richardson at their most priceless), Placid actually harbours a destructive, deep-seated confusion about who he's supposed to be.

In truth, the reason the film resounds so successfully is because after awhile, Placid doesn't seem so unknown to us. Soon, we see ourselves. It's not only a rite of passage for the age group in question to feel alienated, learning to navigate the modern world gives them a terminal case of cynicism early in life.

We can all identify with Placid's feelings of alienation from his peers, his family, and the sanitised, prepackaged 'choices' facing him in life.

After a life of being beaten up like clockwork, let down by his parents' abnormal desire to emotionally deconstruct and discuss everything instead of acting on it (often to their hapless son and including their own sex life) Placid Lake has only two things.

First is a certainty that he doesn't belong. Second is his best friend Gemma, who's in a similar situation, being groomed for a career in high academia by her scientist Dad without ever having considered anything else.

Placid decides to rebel against everything he's ever known (not fitting in) by getting a haircut, a smart suit, and climbing the corporate ladder at an insurance company. It's in fact the best example of the metaphorical roads branching off from his feet. Christopher Stollery is perfect as Placid's corporate mentor at Icarus Insurance – a parable for the ultra-powerful, transnational corporate workforce eager to swallow Placid up for years of his life and spit him out soulless and hollow.

His Mum and Dad are furious that he could enslave himself to the establishment so callously. Gemma's confused and worried at this sudden desire by her friend to fit in – she's the only one who knows he'll never fit into the mould he's trying to fill.

It's a feel-good story all the way through (blessedly minus the syrupy gag factor) right up until the requisite and expected happy ending. More than anything, The Rage in Placid Lake is a modern fable.

The moral – be true to who you are no matter how out of place it makes you feel – isn't deeply clever or buried in the subtext. It isn't even anything we haven't been told before at the movies, but rarely is it conveyed clearly, simply, and in a style both light hearted and satirical.

There's rough edges here and there, but similar flaws were exacerbated in You Can't Stop the Murders, Horseplay and their contemporaries by unfunny scripts and confusing narratives. As a story and a comment, Rage is rock solid and you're willing to forgive a lot more.

But the big question – can rock wunderkind Ben Lee act? The answer isn't as clear, but the touch of overeagerness in his performance adds to his character's charm. If he carried a film himself, the cracks in his armour would show, but supported by the likes of Macdonald, Richardson and Byrne, he almost does better by association.

Richardson and Macdonald are in touch with the comedy of their characters without once resorting to two dimensional ham and provide two of the film's most solid roles. Gemma is played by wonderful effect by the gorgeous Rose Byrne, who's consistently proven to be Australia's most intriguing young actress since playing opposite Heath Ledger in Two Hands.

The Rage in Placid Lake is the storytelling (and comic) triumph Australian moviemakers should be concentrating on instead of just getting the technicalities of film production right.

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