In attempting to strike the balance between quirky/edgy and heartwarming coming-of-age story, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger walks a fine line and occasionally waivers, but the appeal of its cast and plot archetype should mean it wins fans of a certain age and gender.
Danielle Catanzariti is Esther Blueburger, charming Jewish misfit in an expensive Christian private school whose students reject her, and member of a family that is dysfunctional at the very least. Her mother Grace (Essie Davis) defines neurotic and her obsession with keeping up appearances places both Esther and her twin brother Jacob (Christian Byers) under considerable stress, while their father Osmond (Russell Dykstra) just wants peace. When her pet duck is murdered and she meets enigmatic stranger Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Esther will take the first steps towards defining herself in spite of her family.
The first film for writer/director Cathy Randall also features the first screen appearance for Catanzariti, and she does a wonderful job of making Esther believable and appealing enough that the audience must surely get behind her in her struggles, without shirking the moments when Esther is less than pleasant. Randall does an excellent job of casting Esther as outsider – schoolyard scenes are choreographed to enhance the suggestion of otherness that eventually engulfs her. Militaristic overtones in these scenes maximise the sense that conformity is more important than individuality and sits comfortably alongside Esther’s naming of her duck ‘Normal’.
The film reaches another level after the entrance of Castle-Hughes, who threatens at times to steal the film with her intensity. She has truly come a long way from the 11-year-old Oscar-nominated actress of Whale Rider. The other notable performance is that of Davis, who has the unenviable task of playing one of the driving forces behind her family’s unhappiness, and in spite of being a relatively small role she brings just enough fragility to Grace to keep the audience from outright hating her.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger has its problems, the most significant being a fairly abrupt and (perhaps) unnecessary change in tone and direction in the final act. This crisis sits uncomfortably with the remainder of the film, and the characters are consequently placed in positions that are difficult for the audience to accept or believe. Castle-Hughes suffers from inadequate direction in this section, although perhaps there is no way to resolve the dilemma the actress is placed in by the story. Additionally, some of what her characters are asked to do may mean Randall alienates some viewers, with one particular scene of sexual exploration uncomfortable at minimum – perhaps the development of Esther’s sexual maturity should be part of this story, but for a film that will otherwise appeal to pre- and early-teen female audiences this scene may go slightly too far.
With its soundtrack of upbeat Australian artists and an appealing story of a young woman finding herself, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger is a mostly successful film that is likely to become popular with young girls as a dvd. Already screened as an Official Selection at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, perhaps it can also achieve international success.Rating: