It’s a widely embraced truism that it’s a bloody miracle any of us who grew up in the ’70s got out alive. It was as true Down Under as it was here in the Northern Hemisphere.
It wasn’t just the banana hammocks, leisure suits, sideburns, deathtrap cars, promiscuity, booze, saccharine in our soft drinks, saccharine pop music, drugs and disco that menaced us.
“We were the first generation to wear fully synthetic fabrics,” an all-wise narrator reminds us. “We were also…the last,” he adds, showing off the burn scars he and a 14 year-old friend wear. Thanks to such “progress,” and bad parenting, “Melly and I were ‘the flammable children.'”
“Swinging Safari” is an unruly, unsettling and shambolic romp through a ’70s childhood in Australia. It’s from the director of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and if it’s not autobiographical, that can only come as a relief. Not that his protagonist, an aspiring tweenage filmmaker named Jeff (Atticus Robb), remembers this near-disastrous experiment in free-range parenting, ‘safety not guaranteed” child’s play and “swinging” that way.
Stephan Elliott conjures up the lost world of Wyong Place, an idyllic split-level slice of Aussie suburbia on the edge of Nobby’s Beach. It’s where three families and their kids played, drank, experimented and somehow cheated the impending death that seems to hang over their every activity.
“Wedged in time somewhere between ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Wall Street,'” (circa 1975, I figure), we meet the “House of Hall,” “There’s No Place Like Jones” and “Life on Marsh” families in postcard screen-caps from little Jeff’s super eight movies.
Hey, if you wanted to learn to make “foreign cinema” like “Jaws” in the ’70s, you had to have a “super power, super weapon, super eight camera.” And Jeff isn’t just capturing the chaotic home life and cringe-worthy play of these families. He was making movies under his “Death Cheaters” banner — DIY credits, DIY effects (papier mache volcanos) and all-too-real DIY stunts.
Mini-bikes, trampolines and unsupervised fireworks aren’t enough. Jeff’s camera gives him the power to talk other kids into doing pretty much anything he wants. Neighbor boy Gerome (Jesse Denyer) already has a full Evel Knievel suit. Douse him with gas for a fire stunt?
“It’s perfectly safe!”
“Ready when you are, CB!”
The movies they’re making; “Jaws 2, Humans 0,” “The Revengers” and “Dead Sorry in the Morning” among them, are a cringe-worthy hoot. We keep waiting for somebody to blow up, burn to death, drown or at least poke an eye out.
“You aren’t gonna get burned, Gerome is!”
What the parents are doing instead of paying attention to their kids is amusingly appalling. Neighbor mom Kaye (Kylie Minogue) is all but confined to their house, drinking. “Agoraphobia, like skin cancer and political correctness, hadn’t been invented yet.”
Her husband (Guy Pearce) is trying to house, feed and entertain his brood selling Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedias door to door, or by phone, holed up in the basement where he keeps his porn magazines.
“Yes, I’m a wanker! And I’ve got the dirty magazines to prove it!”
Radha Mitchell, slinging her native Oz accent for a change, and Julian McMahon are the high-flying, pill-popping, over-spending, one-upping Joneses. Their rambunctious kids include one shrinking violet, Melissa (Imogen Hess). She’s sensitive, “invisible,” and only sensitive Jeff really sees her.
Jeff’s own parents (Asher Keddie, Jeremy Sims) are merely the best of a very bad lot, and that’s not taking into account the absurdly promiscuous teenage daughter (Chelsea Glaw) they’re not-quite-raising.
Elliott is a filmmaker drawn to the extravagant, and “Swining Safari” is overstuffed with it, from the mayhem of the movies Jeff makes to the violent play of the “rumpus room” where kids were confined during parties, and on to the “swinging” that takes place downstairs, among the seemingly consenting adults.
The film takes its title from the “Swingin’ Safari” LP German orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert and his biggest flute-trio hit had in the ’60s. That’s a pun for the “key party” swinging that the couples turn their fondue party into, with Kaempfert’s gloriously square instrumentals contrasting with the destructive behavior they’re set to.
As for symbolism, well Nobby’s Beach has a great blue whale wash up on it, “trapped here, rotting, just like us” Melly assures Jeff. They have to get out, and they’re the only ones who know it.
There’s a bemused dread hanging over “Swinging Safari” (opening in the US June 21), with everything from leaving kids to bake in a hot car to “teach a lesson” to them to dangerously pointy beach umbrellas to every insanely dangerous thing “my stunt man” is put through for Death Cheaters productions.
The kids are amusingly crass and clueless, stepping on jellyfish for kicks, cruelly misusing each other and having accidents with their pets. But the great pleasure in the picture is the way Pearce, Minogue, McMahon and the other adults hurl themselves into the vulgarity of it all.
The only big laughs are sight gags, with Mitchell’s insults hurled while she’s wearing one of those Vita Master Exercise Machine belts standing out.
“Do-o-o-on’t ma-a-a-ke me la-a-a-augh!”
But Elliott has fun, as we do, snickering and rolling our eyes at the insane nonsense we believed, practiced and indulged in way back when.
When another kid cracks, “Geez, I wish I had parents like yours,” Elliott and his fellow survivors can only grin and shake our heads.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language and some underage drinking
Cast: Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell, Julian McMahon, Asher Keddie, Jeremy Sims
Credits: Written and directed by Stephan Elliott. A Blue Fox Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:36