A quiet but emotionally resonant drama about grief and the inability to process it, St Elmo is able to transcend both its familiar themes and somewhat languid pace in remarkable fashion. First-time writer/director Emily Dynes draws upon her own lived experience to enrich a story of familial disconnection, and in the process delivers a trenchant critique of the sort of male emotional repression that, in her mind, defines Australia’s national character. While the expression of its themes is rather transparent, Dynes’ film is resolutely character-focused, and her rare ability to communicate both her character’s interiority visually, while simultaneously nailing big showpiece moments, combine for an auspicious debut that heralds the arrival of a major new talent.
Set in a small Australian mountain town where bushfires are an omnipresent fact of life, the film focuses on a father and son in the wake of tragedy. Peter, the father (Giustino Della Vedova), is emotionally vacant, almost to the point of catatonia, and unresponsive to his son Josh’s (Toby Wallace) pain. Complicating Josh’s bereavement is his nascent sexual awakening—his trauma and sense of isolation mingle with raw need, and create awkwardness with his best friend whom valiantly tries to support him. For Peter, his shut-off emotions begin to manifest psychologically, as he begins to hear voices and snippets of memory in his present timeline, as he mans a firewatch tower on lookout.
Dynes is familiar with bushfires, living through multiple episodes in her youth. In correspondence with us, she recounts her naive excitement when school would shut down due to threats, and the queer beauty of the sky turning red and orange, the air thick and muggy with smoke. When her mother was a child the house burned down twice, and each time her grandparents rebuilt on the same spot. Dynes associates this obstinacy with the concept of the “Australian Battler”, a commended aspect of Australian national character that prizes perseverance and stiff upper lip.
For Dynes this concept fascinates—the idea that those who simply put their head down and keep going are brave is a strange perversion of what bravery actually is, and seems to promote a detrimental imagining of (largely male) strength. In explaining her motivation with the story Dynes’ writes, “I wanted to show the consequence of this societal lesson – how men can often resort to either rage or silence as a shortcut to processing big emotions, because society does not teach them any other way. By suppressing grief or love or sexuality, emotions can erupt out of us in explosive and violent ways and hurt the ones we hold dearest. In this sense, St Elmo is an anti-coming of age story – the characters realise that masculinity is finding strength in one another, not alone.”
Dynes communicates this tension artfully in collaboration with her DP (Wilson Huang) and her actors. The film is shot largely handheld, allowing her actors the freedom to perform off one another, and the team employed a style of recording long uninterrupted takes for the same reason. The intimacy and authenticity this engenders is vital to the film, and the result looks great to boot.
Only 20 years old at the time of shooting, St Elmo is an altogether precocious beginning to Dynes career. There is a maturity to its themes and craft that is startling. The giant set-piece that ends the film is a thrillingly executed, and the amount of coordination and approval it required from both the team and the surrounding community is testament to this young woman’s creative vision, and speaks well to her forcefulness and grit in realizing it. Australia has recognized her as an emerging talent, she was nominated as Young Australian Filmmaker of Year at the Byron Bay Film Festival, and took part in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s accelerator program. She has subsequently directed a pair of music videos, and recently completed her follow-up short film, To the Sea. We’re excited to check it out, and certainly more international acclaim is soon to follow.