It’s been a big couple of years for Australian films tackling racism and immigration, from the broad comedy Down Under to the über-serious Australia Day. With Ben Elton’s first feature directorial outing in almost18 years, audiences are whacked over the back of the head with the issues, even if it is preaching to the converted.
THREE SUMMERS takes place at the fictional Westival, a Western Australian folk festival, where theremin player art wanker (Robert Sheehan) and down-home country fiddle prodigy Keavy (Rebecca Breeds) begin to fall in love despite the odds. Over the course of the titular three summers, the lives of the regular festival-goers intertwine over discussions of racism, indigenous rights, immigration, and refugee issues.
While a massive discussion needs to be had about confusing nationalism for pride, one that Warwick Thornton’s We Don’t Need a Map scraped the surface of, Elton’s handling leaves a lot to desire. Perhaps because of his own immigration experience, his avatar is a grandfatherly widow (Michael Caton), displaced English child immigrant who initially feels citizenship is earned, not given. Contrasting him is an Aboriginal elder (Kelton Pell), who takes a firm stance that it is the English who were the occupying force. The problem is that none of the characters speak beyond truisms, offering little chance for dialogue between the parties until the third act allows them to.
For a film that’s highly topical in its outlook, what’s most disappointing from the typically sharp Elton is just how instantly dated the comedy feels. Jokes about the merits of theremins, millennials and their new fangled Tinder apps, and “over-complicated sarsaparilla” are squarely targeted at a broad middle-aged audience, instantly alienating anyone under the age of 30. A running gag structured around two such couples from the same demographic, ostensibly a showcase for Peter Rowsthorn, really only has the punchline that ‘white people enjoy wine and routines.’
There’s still plenty of room to showcase individual talents, of course. Magda Szubanski finds the right groove with Queenie, the radio jockey who takes in all opinions with a diplomatic smile. Pell is a massive presence whenever he is on screen, but it is Kate Box and the no-nonsense security guard who steals every scene that she is in.
At the World Premiere of the film in Melbourne, Elton said the film probably wouldn’t fix the ills of society but “it’s not going to do any harm, and that’s probably enough.” He’s undoubtedly right, but it’s also worth pondering whether it will do any good either. THREE SUMMERS is not subversive enough to change minds, but too niche to speak to a broader audience. It sits somewhere in the middle, and in these politically trying times, that’s definitely not enough.