I have a secret.
I love Christina Ricci.
No, silly. I'm not talking in a fanboy kind of way (Okay, maybe just a little). Heck, I'm not even saying that I've given every film she's ever done an absolute rave or even a positive review.
Though, this might be a good time to remind everyone that I was just about the only film critic who gave Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star a good review and actually meant it.
What I'm talking about, though, is the fact that time and time again I find Ricci taking roles that challenge her as an actress and involving herself in movies that actually matter to the world.
Think about it. Pumpkin, a personal favorite. Penelope. Black Snake Moan. Bastard Out of Carolina.
There are so many others.
Now, there is Around the Block, a gem of a film from writer/director Sarah Spillane that had its world premiere at TIFF and is now opening on August 1st in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood with distribution by indie distrib Random Media.
In the film, Ricci plays Dino Chalmers, an American drama teacher who moves to Australia to be with her fiance' and ends up being hired by a school in the decidedly urban area of Redfern that also happens to most likely be in its last semester of existence. While I'd be hesitant to call Redfern the Australian South Central, it is an area known as "the Block" that serves as home to a large number of Australia's indigenous peoples.
If you're already sensing the Dangerous Minds, or any number of other urban school themed flicks, you're not completely off base but, to Spillane's credit, you're not completely right either.
Around the Block gets its inspiration from Dino's determination to prove that these kids, primarily considered outcasts and throwaways by even many of the school's staff and Dino's own fiance', are just as capable as other youth of accomplishing great things. The primary way in which she chases this goal is to put together an almost all black cast for Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and to infuse the production with pieces of the Aboriginal culture. Along the way, Dino becomes enthralled with one particular youth, Liam (Hunter Page-Lochard), an immensely talented young man bogged down by his family's cycle of violence and an elder sibling's fierce determination to avenge an uncle's death.
While Ricci for the most part gives Around the Block its heart and inspiration, the film's true soul comes from the emotionally honest and raw performance of Hunter Page-Lochard as Liam. Page-Lochard, who may be familiar to discerning American moviegoers from his appearances in The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae, gives an earthy and realistic performance as the troubled yet searching Liam. Avoiding the histrionics that are too often associated with a character such as Liam, Page-Lochard infuses the young man with a quiet street bravado birthed out of a lifetime of survival while embodying just the right amount of vulnerability and believable hope and longing.
Ricci herself continues to get better and better as an actress. As Dino, Ricci adds a layer of emotional honesty that allows the character to far transcend the usual "do-gooder" type of character that we find in these types of films. While Around the Block is still filled with cliche's, they're cliche's that work for the film rather than against it.
In addition to the fine performances by Ricci and Page-Lochard, Matt Nable and Jack Thompson both turn in terrific performances amongst an ensemble cast without a weak link.
The film's original music by Nick Wales serves as nice companion to its many different moods, while Martin McGrath's lensing is top notch throughout the production. Technical credits overall are solid throughout.
After a successful festival run, Around the Block is now getting its opportunity with a limited theatrical release and one can only hope that audiences discover this wonderful indie gem with heart and conviction. For more information on the film's theatrical release, be sure to check out its Facebook page linked to in the credits. Around the Block will then be available on DVD/VOD on August 5th, 2014.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic