Somber but beautifully played, Little Fish handles drug addiction in a manner unthinkable in mainstream films. Honest and uncompromising, it examines in close detail the lives of the walking wounded in the blue-collar suburbs of Sydney. A stunning performance by Cate Blanchett elevates what could have been just a collection of character sketches to something more worthwhile.
Blanchett plays Tracy Heart, manager of a hole-in-the-wall video store in the outer boros of Sydney. She lives with her hard-working mother Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) and brother Ray (Martin Henderson), whose leg was amputated after a car accident. Once a heroin addict, Tracy has been clean for four years. She wants to expand her store into an online gaming salon, but because of her record can’t get a bank loan.
Everyone in Little Fish is weighed down by the past. Tracy’s friend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), for example, a former football star who sustains his drug habit by selling off mementoes of his career. Or Brad (Sam Neill), a bisexual dealer who is handing over his clients to Steve (Joel Tobeck) prior to retiring. Even Ray, who has started dealing himself, is haunted by events four years ago.
As Tracy’s dreams falter, she meets up with Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), once her boyfriend and the man who caused Ray’s accident. When he offers to help finance her shop, Tracy faces choices that will affect the rest of her life: her loyalty to Lionel, her feelings for Jonny, and the lure of drugs.
The acting in Little Fish is so immediate and accomplished that it feels invisible. The cast, which includes the biggest stars in Australia, doesn’t play against type as much as play against expectations. Hugo Weaving has an uncanny grasp of an addict’s ploys, but is compassionate about his character’s flaws. Noni Hazlehurst is impeccable as a mother whose suspicions mask her love for her children.
Director Rowan Woods adopts a druggy style of diffused lighting, handheld cameras, soft focus, and droning music, evoking a mood of emptiness and longing that’s hard to shake. Jacquelin Perske developed Little Fish at a screenwriting workshop, and like most workshop scripts it is longer on characterization than on plotting. The real tension in the film arises from worrying whether Tracy will succumb to drugs again, not from the unconvincing thriller moves that end the story.
For Tracy, anything can be a temptation. Wind chimes, light falling across a pillow, a song on the radio–one spark could provoke a relapse. Cate Blanchett is simply magnetic in the role. I don’t think there is another actress in film who could inhabit the character so fully without judging her. And by showing how easy it is for someone that smart and appealing to falter, Little Fish says more about addiction than dozens of well-meaning message dramas.
Cast and credits
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Martin Henderson, Noni Hazlehurst, Dustin Nguyen, Joel Tobeck, Lisa McCune, Susie Porter, Nina Liu, Linda Cropper, Daniela Farinacci, Ferdinand Hoang, Anh Do, Jason Chong, Anthony Wong.
Credits: Directed by Rowan Woods. Written by Jacquelin Perske. Produced by Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts, Richard Keddie. Executive producers: Robert Mullis, Barrie M. Osborne, Kirk D’Amico, Marion Pilowsky. Director of photography: Danny Ruhlmann. Editors: Alexandre de Franceschi, John Scott. Producer designer: Luigi Pittorino. Music by Nathan Larson. Sound design: Sam Petty. Costume designer: Melinda Doring. A Film Finance Corporation Australia presentation of a Porchlight Films production, in association with Mullis Capital Independent, The New South Wales Film and Television Office, Myriad Pictures, and Dirty Films.