Look Both Ways

| April 18, 2006

It’s the rarest of rare pleasures for a movie buff: walking in blind to a new film by a new director and being completely floored by it. In an age when every ambitious young filmmaker is greeted as the Next Big Thing and each new indie sensation arrives on a wave of festival-fueled, pre-release hype, it’s truly amazing when a great film slips through the cracks and opens in theaters without overzealous fanfare.
So at the risk of spoiling such a welcome surprise, I’m here to sing the praises of Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways, a wonderful Australian import that may be the year’s first unheralded triumph. For though it played at both Toronto and the Chicago International Film Festival last year, the film’s reputation has not preceded it. Curious, given that, as feature-film debuts go, this one’s a stunner. A fusing of modern, experimental techniques with old-fashioned storytelling, it’s a wonderful ensemble, one that engages the mind and the heart with equal conviction.
In Sidney, a young man walking his dog is struck and killed by a passing train. This proves to be the catalyst of Look Both Ways, which, like countless films that have come before it, is about death, and the different ways people respond to and cope with it. To describe it that way, though, would lead one to believe that it’s a bleak, dour affair, a gloom-and-doom indie from Down Under. In actuality, the film has a surprisingly light touch, probably because Watt (who wrote as well directed) is less concerned with grief than she is with self-reflection and, as the title aptly indicates, anxiety about one’s own mortality. The characters (all of whom are connected to each other, directly or indirectly) spend one sweltering hot weekend sorting out their problems and confronting their fears. Strangers bond, lives intersect, and narrative threads are pulled tightly together.
If all of this sounds a lot like Crash, it’s probably because Look Both Ways, like the recent Best Picture winner, is clearly indebted to both Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Both films even sport a somewhat trite montage sequence of sulking and mourning, scored to an acoustic, melancholy ballad. But while Paul Haggis’s love-it-or-hate-it epic brought its characters together through vaguely karmic/cosmic coincidence, the connections forged in Look Both Ways are the product of shared experience and tangible relation. It isn’t fate driving each meeting and interaction, but rather mutual loneliness, confusion, and desire. So unlike Crash, the film requires no suspension of disbelief, and it forces no artificial links between its multiple plot strands and character arcs.
Despite its obvious influences, Look Both Ways never feels particularly derivative, perhaps because Watts doesn’t mimic the style or tone of her forebears, just their narrative structure. Her approach to the material is both modern and classical, as she employs radical visual flourishes in conjunction with sturdy plotting and character development. An animator taking her first stab at live action, the director uses flashes of splendid animation (some hand-drawn, some watercolor, some CG) to reflect the emotional distress and anxiety of her protagonists. Two characters in particular suffer from extremely vivid imaginations: Meryl (Justine Clarke), whose father recently passed away, keeps daydreaming of her own death by random accident; and Nick (William McInnes), who has just discovered he has testicular cancer, gets frightening flashes of his own body turning on him and deteriorating. “I keep seeing death all around me this week,” says Nick to Meryl, and the two are drawn together, finding common ground in their morbid preoccupation, the ghoulish visions that they both can’t shake.
In the wrong hands, these striking vignettes and animated cutaways might have been distracting or irritating, but instead they feel like essential components of Watts’s unique vision. Her style complements her content, and the film emerges as the most persuasive argument for mixed modes since American Splendor, another great movie that seamlessly blended live action with animation for thematic purpose. Indeed, what’s most impressive and surprising about Look Both Ways is how its flashy aesthetic tricks never conflict with its existence as a down-to-Earth, character-driven piece. Aided by a large, stellar cast, Watts has made an excellent slice-of-life drama, one that’s punctuated by inspired bursts of dry, gallows humor. Warm but never saccharine, melancholic but never melodramatic, Look Both Ways navigates the middle ground between world-weary cynicism and cautious optimism. And it’s guided, like the best ensemble films, by the plights of its characters, not by some overarching agenda, ala Crash.
Speaking of Crash, though, it’s worth noting that it shares at least one other quality with Look Both Ways: both films capture, intentionally or not, the spirit of the cities in which they’re set. In other words, just as Haggis pulled us into the messy gridlock of L.A., Watts plunges us directly into Sidney’s calmer but no less fascinating urban landscape. To call the film intrinsically Australian is perhaps presumptuous, but it certainly grooves on the idiosyncratic rhythm of its own culture. That, of course, is an outsider perspective. Ultimately, Look Both Ways transcends cultural barriers anyway, as it’s driven by a universal anxiety, that of the mysterious experience of death itself. It’s hard to imagine seeing another movie this year as charming, as moving, as completely satisfying as this one. But the year is young and I’m feeling optimistic.

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