Fate is a funny thing, isn't it? At one moment you're walking down the street for a nice cup of joe, and in the next minute you're in the middle of a random conversation with an old high-school friend. It's a small world where anything can happen — where everybody is interconnected through a familiar historical web of connections. In a film consumed by these unexpected encounters, James Vaughan's intricately crafted Friends and Strangers precisely communicates the awkwardness of these chance interactions. It's a film dependent on mumblecore stylings — a production reminiscent of the work of Hong Sang-Soo and his trademark intricate web of character motivations and low stakes.
The entire point of the film is to demonstrate the interconnected lifestyles of all the characters featured. But even more prominently, the film also has something relatively interesting to comment on the shared experience of white heritage in a post-colonialist society. Shot on the lands of the Eora and Ngunnawal Peoples, Vaughan attempts to comment on the aftermath of the colonisation of Australia through brief subliminal imagery. The film opens with hand-drawn art depicting the colonisation of Australia. Portraits of brutal acts demonstrate the Sydney harbour slowly being taken over by barbaric English-men. Throughout the film, there's a looming sense of ignorance towards these acts of violence. Characters within the film — including the admirable lead protagonist Ray — ignore figures of their colonialist past, as they continue to move on with their insignificant and menial tasks.
Infused with visual metaphor, the film also features some thought-provoking imagery that connects with the aforementioned theme. An upper class house poorly constructed with thin walls, demonstrating the artificiality of the 1%. Propagated paintings falsely glorifying and depicting white Australian history — ranging from the arrival of confederate soldiers to the Kelly Gang shootout. Municipal parks gloriously displaying statues of colonialist governors and captains in broad daylight. A $1 rusted coin — demonstrating the route of one of the character's nationality. It's the small details that add a bigger picture to the interconnectivity of the characters and the tedious subplots that sync with their awkward ventures.
The funny thing about Friends and Strangers is that it's a rare situation where a debut director knows exactly what they want to state thematically, but not necessarily have a full grasp of what they're trying to emulate in their direction. Friends and Strangers is a film that could have packed a larger thematic punch in its commentary if it went with a domino/chain reaction approach. The recurring characters aren't enough to sustain the awkward conversations. A more random and open-ended approach could have easily been more effective when commenting on the theme of ignorance and interconnectivity of Australia's colonialist past. Imagine the possibilities! More hijinks, more social commentary, more beautiful shots of metropolitan Australia!
In a film that needed more substance to hold together the provoking post-modern theme, Vaughan barely scratches the surface of what could have been the next major Australian indie. As a cute little mumblecore debut feature, Friends and Strangers is an adequate drama that offers some unique concepts and ideas that never come to full fruition. It's an admirable comedy that is bound to cause discussions between Vaughan's attempts at social commentary and his original text.
Dir: James Vaughan
Scr: James Vaughan
Cast: Emma Diaz, Fergus Wilson, Victoria Maxwell, Greg Zimbulis
DOP: Dimitri Zaunders
Runtime: 84 minutes
Friends and Strangers premiered at this year's historic Rotterdam Film Festival edition, as part of the Tiger Competition program. The film is currently seeking international distribution.