Oyster Farmer

Starring: Alex O'Lachlan, David Field, Kerry Armstrong, Jack Thompson. Written and directed by: Anna Reeves.
Running Time: 86 mins.
Rated: Rated: MA
Oyster Farmer is a small, richly satisfying romantic drama about a young man, Jack Flange (Alex O'Lachlan), who leaves the hurly-burly of Sydney to find work amongst oyster farmers in their secluded, close-knit community on the Hawkesbury River.

The film opens with atmospheric shots of scuttling crabs, oyster workers, and an aluminium dinghy skimming over the Hawkesbury's wide brown water. Viewers aren't told much about Jack's character or his background, except that this morning he is late for work. But we learn in a brief scene that he's come to the Hawkesbury to be near his sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison), who is recovering from a car accident in a nearby private hospital.

Jack works for Brownie (David Field) and his Irish-born father Mumbles (Jim Norton, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Horrors) who are struggling to make ends meet in an industry that is becoming increasingly global and competitive. As well as worrying about the harvest and whether his oysters will spawn too early and ruin the crop, Brownie is preoccupied with how to win back his estranged wife Trish (Kerri Armstrong), whose almost magical understanding of the needs of oysters has led to her being employed by a rival farmer.

Jack meanwhile has problems of his own. In a bid to pay for Nikki's spiralling hospital costs, he robs a security van at the Sydney Fish Market and mails the money back to himself upriver. Jack haunts the local post office, waiting for the package to arrive. But when the local postman has a heart attack, and the mail he was delivering scatters and disappears, Jack begins to suspect that others in the community have stolen his much needed cash.

Oyster Farmer is a homage to the wild beauty of the Hawkesbury River and the struggling oyster farmers who for eight generations have lived and worked along its banks. Yet Anna Reeves, in her first feature film since graduating from AFTRS, avoids the sentimentality and clichés that often beset films of this kind, and with a keen understanding of her off-beat characters, brings them deftly to life.

Reeves' confident direction rarely sounds a wrong note, and she is helped in this by the first rate cast. Field, often associated in films with violent characters (Every Night, Every night, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, Chopper), and Norton are especially good as the father and son whose macho lives are controlled by the flow of the river and the emotional vagaries of molluscs.

Kerry Armstrong (Lantana, SeaChange, MDA) is splendid as Trish, Brownie's strategically minded, strong-willed wife, who like the oysters is emblematic of the female principle. Veteran actor Jack Thompson makes an all-too-brief performance as a Vietnam vet who finds peace with his mates on the fringes of the community. But the stars of the film are newcomers Alex O'Lachlan as Jack, and Diana Glenn (The Secret Life of Us, Hating Alison Ashley) as his astute and generous girlfriend, Pearl.

The Hawkesbury is a far cry from the Nile or the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which gave rise to civilisation. But there is a sense in Oyster Farmer that Jack finds his 'pearl' on the Hawkesbury because it is only in the ebb and flow of the great river - in the lessons it teaches about patient nurturing and the sense of community this generates - that Jack finds the cure for his rootlessness, and a sense of belonging.

Jan Epstein is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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