The Australian dramatic fantasy “Blaze” is so unusual that there is no meeting it halfway. Either take it on director and co-writer Del Kathryn Barton’s terms, or move along.
It’s an extraordinary blend of fantasy and ugly reality folded into a story of a crime and the troubled child who witnessed it.
I’m almost at a loss as to think of analogies for it. “Birdy,” maybe? “The City of Lost Children?” “The Fisher King” might be the closest reference, a tale of madness, mental escape and a terrible crime that traps its title character, perhaps forever.
Just because Blaze is 12, neither we nor her single-dad can hold out much hope that the trauma she’s experienced is something she’ll just grow out of.
Blaze is played by Julia Savage, a gifted young Australian actress with a lot of access to her interior life and memories of tween fury. She is unforgettable as a middle school child who somehow fits in at school even though it’s obvious that she’s most comfortable tuning-out the world via her headphones. She loses herself in the fantastical reveries of her imagination, protected by “my dragon,” a vast creation spun out of the sort of feathers, tie-dye and wild fabrics of her Haight Asbury-ish bedroom.
Her father (Simon Baker, superb) indulges her collectibles and her flights of fancy. How much of her behavior he regards as quirks and how much he’s figured out is concerning is unclear. She’s going to private school, takes judo classes and has a free hand decorating and zoning out.
Then she stumbles into a reality that her headphones can’t block out. She witnesses an alley confrontation between former lovers that turns into a horrific rape and murder. The only thing that could make this awful crime worse is her knowledge that she didn’t scream, cry out for help or make herself known, actions which might have saved the victim.
Not that Blaze could know that. She is 12, after all. But the guilt is still there.
When her dad figures out there’s something wrong, the crime officially claims another victim. Blaze must be examined for evidence of sexual assault, and then persuaded to sit in court and face the murderer (Josh Lawson) and his “How do you SLEEP at night?” defense attorney.
Barton works in commentary on Australia’s justice system where it pertains to crimes against women as we see this curious child fall down the rabbit hole of Internet searches about the victim, the nature of this sort of crime and the country’s stumbling attempts to respond to it.
But “Blaze” takes its turn towards extraordinary through the interior life the film gives her. She fantasizes revenge, escaping to the moon (via step ladder), torching that defense attorney with a fire-breathing dragon figurine, one of many such dolls and toys she fantasizes are living in her stomach, ready to climb out and intervene in her life.
Her imagined giant patchwork plush-toy dragon is her true protector, and the one “friend” she can’t bear to part with, even when medication enters the picture and she and we can guess what that means. Stop-motion animated dolls, visions of descending a tunnel lined with cherries and trippy extreme closeups of her bird-eyed dragon’s eyeball lend a dreamy look to our heroine’s uncertain fugue state.
Sofia Hampson plays that middle school pal who is slightly more mature, and thus both stalwart in her support and not really qualified to talk about boys, sex and other things swirling around in this girl’s head. Not wholly a “bad influence,” but close.
I like the way the father figure is drawn here, and the fact that we and the filmmaker can see that keeping a child who’s witnessed the most brutal rape and murder in a coed JUDO class isn’t the smartest play.
Yes, maintaining routine is important. But even an idiot should fret about having to teach your kid what “triggered” means because you didn’t think that through. The idea that everybody here is kind of out of their depth, especially the father, feels like the most realistic thing in this often surrealistic film.
And that’s not destined to be his only wrong move. In this situation, every parental decision is fraught, and the consequences of something you can’t anticipate can be terminal.
“Blaze” is one of the roughest coming of age tales in memory, a movie that drags its heroine from fantasy to ugly reality time and again. Barton lets us see even those fantasies turn dark, bloody and menacing as a 12-year-old learns ugly truths about cruelty, crime and justice as it pertains to women in most of the world, even the supposedly “liberal” democracies.
And even though I think I’ve made the point in all those paragraphs above, let me reiterate. “Blaze” is really something, a riveting and challenging experience and an extraordinary film not to be missed.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Julia Savage, Simon Baker, Yael Stone, Josh Lawson and Sofia Hampson
Credits: Directed by Del Kathryn Barton, scripted by Huna Amweero, Del Kathryn Barton. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:37