We got a weird one tonight, folks.
Girl Asleep is focused on a teenage girl (played by Bethany Whitmore) who’s just starting school at a new town. As if that wasn’t awkward enough, her parents (played by Amber McMahon and screenwriter Matthew Whittet) decide to throw a massive party for Greta’s 15th birthday to drag her kicking and screaming out of her shell. So far, it’s a pretty basic premise for a coming-of-age story. But notice the title.
Yes, Greta inexplicably falls asleep during her own birthday party. What follows is a fantasy quest by way of a prolonged symbolism-flooded dream sequence. If you know anything about similar tales (such as Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Mirrormask, etc.), you can start to get an idea of how crazy things get.
The film examines your typical coming-of-age themes, but there’s a distinct emphasis on social pressure. All throughout the film, everybody tells Greta (with varying degrees of implicit passive-aggression) that she has to act a certain way, look a certain way, think a certain way, feel a certain way — especially regarding boys — etc. Every decision is made on Greta’s behalf, mostly because she doesn’t want to make any of these decisions for herself. But in the end, she has to learn how to grow up on her own terms.
So really, what we’ve got here is a story about individualism, embracing creativity and the unique, bucking conformity, and so on. But it’s also a strongly feminist story, given the film’s statements about sexuality and body shaming. Furthermore, the cast is overwhelmingly female, and the few male characters have little agency if any.
Last but not least, there’s a strong bit of subtext about how everyone tells Greta that she should be happy, even if Greta herself doesn’t seem capable of being happy under such conditions. The way it’s presented, she could easily be a case of depression or anxiety. Or maybe she’s just a teenage girl living with adolescence on top of adjusting to a move. I doubt that any statement on mental illness was intended by the filmmakers, but it’s a valid interpretation nonetheless.
All of that said, none of these ideas and statements would land anywhere near as hard without the film’s greatest strength: Style. From the very first prolonged edit-free opening shot, there’s a clear emphasis on bright colors, symmetrical shot compositions, minimal camera movements, and a vaguely mid-20th century retro aesthetic. But that’s just the front half. In the back half, the camera movements and shot compositions become much more erratic, with a heavier emphasis on the surreal and a deliberately artificial look that’s self-aware and suitably off-putting.
Basically, the film is like a mash-up of Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright, going from one influence to the other depending on what’s needed at the time. But what’s remarkable is that while both filmmakers’ styles are unmistakably unique, they both serve to make the characters and their situations so much more heightened. As such, this movie — by virtue of pulling from both influences — is able to present an impossibly exaggerated depiction of life as a teenage girl, doing so in a way that brings laughs without compromising sincerity or heart. Even better, by aping these particular styles, the filmmakers are able to draw a clear line between what’s really happening and what’s only going on in Greta’s head, all while maintaining a consistent tone. That is extraordinary.
Of course, a ton of credit is due to the actors, particularly the female ones. Bethany Whitmore is a remarkable young talent who sells every step of her character’s journey. Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays a sort of spirit guide through Greta’s dream quest, and she’s such an incredible badass that I’m deeply sorry she didn’t get more screen time. Amber McMahon and Imogen Archer respectively play Greta’s mom and older sister, doing so in a way that’s self-absorbed without losing an ounce of love for Greta. Compare that to Danielle Catanzariti, whose character leads a clique of bullies comprised of herself and two sets of identical twins (played by Grace and Fiona Dawson, alongside Pia and Clara Moutakis). They’re all total bitches to the core and creepy in a way that’s so much fun to hate.
Alas, the male actors don’t do quite so well. Eamon Farren plays the boyfriend to Greta’s sister, and there really wasn’t anything to him aside from a cut-rate James Dean wannabe. I realize that the character is hollow by design, but the character wasn’t nearly as strong as he needed to be. Matthew Wittet fares better as Greta’s dad, but the character is ultimately just a clumsy mass of bad puns. Though considering that Wittet also wrote the screenplay (as well as the live stage play the film is based on, and wouldn’t that be a trip to see onstage), it’s fun to think that maybe Wittet was improvising all those awful jokes on the day.
Of course, the primary male lead is Harrison Feldman, playing Greta’s best friend/love interest. Elliott shows legitimate chemistry with Greta, and that goes a long way. It also helps that Elliott is endearingly awkward, and any social faux pas are borne of well-intentioned ignorance more than actual malice. That said, his “clueless geek that loves everything everybody else loves” shtick was stretched out long past the point of patience. Not that I came to actively hate the character, but a little bit of “stereotypical dork” goes a very long way.
Girl Asleep only barely qualifies as a feature film at 77 minutes long, but there’s A LOT of good stuff crammed into that brief runtime. It’s fast-paced and energetic in such a way that it feels long enough and anything else would only subtract from the experience.
As it is, the movie is beautifully creative and loaded with heart. Wes Anderson’s style may have been clearly ripped off, but it was done with ample competence and an offbeat sense of humor that greatly enhances the overall film. It’s a coming-of-age story told with a distinctly feminist perspective that’s timely and incisive, even as it’s presented with a retro aesthetic and whimsical style.
If you can find this film, definitely give it a watch.