Saville: A Month of Sundays (2016)
A Month of Sundays is a strange, small-scale Australian film featuring Anthony LaPaglia as Frank Mollard, a real estate agent who has struggled to connect with his estranged wife Wendy (Justine Clarke) and his son Frank (Indiana Crowther) in the wake of his mother’s death. Six months down the track, he gets a phone call from someone who sounds uncannily like his mother, and while it turns out to be a wrong number, he ends up meeting up with Sarah (Julia Blake) and forming an odd, tentative friendship that allows him to put some of his past to rest. Filling out the cast is John Clarke as Frank’s boss, Gary Sweet as one of Frank’s co-workers and Terence Crawford as Sarah’s own son, whose story ends up being one of the slyest and most surprising moments in the film.
With a cast like that, it’s hard for the film not to be entertaining, and to his credit director Matthew Saville seems to get each actor’s particular strengths and proclivities, which doesn’t prevent him writing against type occasionally either. It’s quite enlightening to see John Clarke given some moments of pathos without every losing his trademark dry wit, while Justine Clarke is given some quite brittle, off-putting scenes that sit in an interesting fashion alongside the more maternal and sympathetic characters that she usually plays. Above all, the film really grasps LaPaglia’s capacity for inhabiting downbeat, depressive characters, particularly characters who have fallen into some deadening routine that they find difficult to shake. After all, LaPaglia was the original choice for Tony Soprano, although his real televisual niche are the kinds of procedural format found on series like Murder One and Without a Trace, and A Month of Sundays is at its strongest when it plays as a kind of extended real estate procedural, as well as when it opts for a more low-key televisual rhythm over moments of self-consciously cinematic spectacle and significance.
For all those reasons, the most compelling moments tend to take place in and around real estate inspections, although it quickly becomes clear that Frank treats every space and situation as a potential inspection, mentally rehearsing measurements, vantage points and sales pitches in even the most intimate scenarios. In many ways, the actual drama that ensues is extremely underdone – at moments, it’s barely a film – but that very half-formed quality is also what allows it to capture the bland placelessness that has settled over so much of Australian suburbia in the wake of the global recession. In particular, the film really captures the weird depressive hush that has fallen over inner city suburbs in which even the most residual traces of community and counterculture have been gentrified away to make room for booming real estate investment opportunities. At the same time, Frank’s movement from property to property seems designed to capture the gradual spread of this new inner-city placelessness from the centre to the fringes – “we’re calling this an inner suburb now” – as suburbs give way to real estate portfolios and the very notion of place itself gradually and depressively leaches away.
Buried in there, then, is a bit of a paean to Australian suburbia as a communal space, with the can-do perkiness of John Clarke – as well as his pathos – seeming to epitomise the world that the film is watching pass from view. One of the strongest sequences witnesses Frank driving Sarah around to all her former suburban homes, in a kind of Australian echo of Wild Strawberries, while the film often feels as if it is suffering from clinical depression. Admittedly, that occasionally pushes it in the direction of the tragic and somewhat generic banality typical of so much Australian cinema, but it does also produce a quite unique quotidian downbeat vibe as well. At times, it almost reminded me of Miranda July in the way in which it presents depression as a mere precondition of late capitalist life – it’s a film that can only envisage happiness through and in depression, creating a bittersweet melancholy but also an emergent sense of escape at even the most harrowing moments.
Of course, that sense of placelessness is only tolerable in the first place – even for residents – because digital space has emerged to take up some of the slack, with more and more of the life of the streets migrating online. As a result, it’s impossible for the film to address this weird disintegration of space without also addressing digital life in some way. As a film that is clearly aimed at seniors, there’s a fairly predictable run of jokes about ineptitude with USBs, flash drives and viruses – as well as digital terminology more generally – along with an IT expert who bewilders everybody by speaking almost entirely in acronyms. More originally, however, Frank and Sarah’s relationship often feels like an online dating narrative for an older generation who might not be savvy with digital hookup mechanisms, but can still engage with the peculiar awkwardness and strangeness that ensues when two people meet up with virtually no knowledge of each other.
Sure, that connection may be generated by a wrongly dialled number (on a landline!) rather than a social app, but the result is the same – namely, to overlap the peculiar spatial emptiness of the film’s suburban world with a more properly digital sense of both propinquity and isolation. It’s a testament to the film, then, that Frank and Sarah’s relationship never quite loses that sense of digital impropriety, with Frank’s behaviour, in particular, often coming close to stalking. While “old people behaving badly” has become a cinematic genre unto itself, there’s something about seeing LaPaglia and Blake in the guise of such a borderline inappropriate relationship that gravitates the film closer to something like Bad Grandpa than to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise. While it is milked for kitsch at moments, for the most part it never loses its residual strangeness, perhaps because neither Frank nor Sarah can ever quite acclimatise to it, not having the technological know-how – at least as the film portrays them – that tends to normalise these kinds of scenarios for the rest of us. Watching it, I was suddenly taken back to that almost unimaginable time in the early 2000s when meeting people online was transgressive and somewhat tasteless, rather than the norm it has become today.
The result is a film that quite artfully captures the disconnect between the older physical suburbs and a new digital suburbia without ever allowing us to inhabit one or the other. On the one hand, it’s clear that the older world is slipping away but the film never aligns itself with the digital devices needed to usher us into the new world either. Whereas films about seniors often revel in their cluelessness – sometimes at the expense of the younger generation, sometimes at the expense of seniors themselves – A Month of Sundays converges older and younger perceptions of suburbia on a space that never quite comes into focus or feels commensurate with what anyone expects of it, in one of the most evocative and accurate visions of Australian urban life in years.
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