Accidents Happen

Starring Geena Davis, Harrison Gilbertson, Sebastian Gregory and Harry Cook. Directed by Andrew Lancaster.
Rated M (mature themes, coarse language and drug use). 90 mins.

Its director is Australian, it was shot in Sydney, where its screenwriter lives, and financially supported by Screen Australia and Screen NSW, but to all intents and purposes Accidents Happen is an American movie. This curious hybrid wavers between black comedy and the sort of dissection of suburbia beloved of David Lynch.

Brian Carbee, the writer, has reworked material from his “semi-autobiographical” book and solo theatre piece based on his childhood in the USA in the 1970s and  ’80s. The pivotal figure is teenager Billy Conway (Harrison Gilbertson), who struggles to come to terms with the way life twists and turns. “Accidents happen,” his adult self observes in the narration that intrudes into too many scenes, but the Conways of Connecticut seem to have more than their fair share. There’s being hit in the head by a baseball, ruining a freshly baked cake, being knocked down by a child on a swing — oh yes, and quite a few deaths.

Billy first witnesses death when the next-door neighbour goes up in flames on the front lawn. Billy and a friend play a prank that results in the death of the friend’s father. But chiefly Billy and his family are affected by a motor accident in which his 12-year-old sister was killed and his elder brother Gene is left in a vegetative state.

The tragedy also hastens the breakdown of the marriage of Gloria and Ray Conway. Ray (Joel Tobeck), who was driving when the accident happened, cannot handle the relentless disparagement of bitter, sharp-tongued Gloria (Geena Davis), who dismisses him as “the spokesman for the useless bastards club”. Ray leaves and ultimately finds another partner, but he tries hard to maintain his father-son relationship with Billy and Gene’s twin, Larry (Harry Cook).

Young Billy is caught in the middle of his parents’ estrangement and this, coupled with feelings of guilt about his part in the car crash (it was his temper tantrum that distracted his father) and in the prank that contributed to the demise of his friend’s father, should make his adolescence more troubled than most.

Yet the film barely reflects this. The tone of Andrew Lancaster’s direction is disappointingly matter-of-fact, and the performances by the largely Australian cast are similarly bland. Geena Davis, however, is eminently watchable as Gloria, tossing off the character’s waspish remarks with evident glee and making the most of a memorable scene when Gloria, told by a suitor how his first wife was electrocuted while washing dishes, dissolves into helpless laughter.

Accidents Happen might have made an affecting melodrama, or it might have succeeded as a full-on black comedy.  The uncertain middle ground adopted here is, in the end, unsatisfactory.

Hopscotch  Out April 22 2010

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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