Play it Safe feels like a breath of fresh air amidst the Australian films of this and recent years. It’s a not a great film, but it’s an encouraging and admirable one that feels like it is attempting something few others have been allowed to. It’s a film that looks at the lives of young people, something that much to my own bafflement is rarely seen on Australian screen (actually, it’s not all that surprising given how long it can take a local film to get off the ground – filmmakers are no longer in their 20s by the time they get to make it and are either dealing with their childhoods or more mature themes). It’s a film that some might mistake for slight, but instead is just more concerned with smaller moments in the life. Moments that other movies might not think are important, but which feel keenly observant when viewed by people for whom little moments are the fabric of life.
Director Chris Pahlow has a history in music videos and has taken his cinematic inspirations from the American independent cinema scene, recalling most of all of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. From Sherwin Akbarzadeh and Jaque Fisher’s crispy grey-toned black and white cinematography to even similar story beats of late twentysomething life-hopping, it nonetheless lacks the strengths that come with an established screenwriter and team of performers like that film had.
What the film does have going for it and what is ultimately Pahlow’s finest achievement is its very real sense of its time and place. This feels like a movie about modern people who look and sound and talk like real people existing in an unengaged Melbourne. I’m not going to admit I did not see myself in some of the characters here, feeling restless in a city, trying to find our place in a city that we are so routinely told has everything we could want yet which we still find lacking. Pahlow’s film captures the quiet side of the city, the highways and train-lines and poorly-attended weeknight bars with such a delicate grace that suggest he has a real talent for seeing the city and its people in a fresh way that hasn’t been done time and time again. Like other local youth-oriented flicks Love and Other Catastrophes, Burke & Wills, Further We Search and Occasional Coarse Language, Playing It Safe is more concerned with recreating that feeling of what it means to simply attempt an existence. It’s a fine debut and one that suggests stronger things are on the horizon.