Review: Bad Girl
3.5out of 5

Director: Fin Edquist

Starring: Sara West, Samara Weaving, Felicity Price, and Ben Winspear

With his full-length feature debut, Edquist throws a wrench in that cinematic archetype of the sweet-natured girl next door. When troubled ‘bad girl’ Amy Anderson (Sara West) moves to the countryside with her adoptive parents for a fresh start, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with the innocent Chloe (Samara Weaving). Amy’s growing attraction towards the friendly local girl sees the formation of cracks in her sullen exterior, providing much needed hope for adoptive parents Michelle (Felicity Price) and Peter Anderson (Ben Winspear). Desperately, they yearn for the reciprocation of filial love from Amy. Edquist’s construction of the characters stir up a similar sense of hope for the Andersons within the film’s viewers, who want to see Amy find solace in learning she is wanted and loved. Contrary to her belief that Michelle and Peter care for her out of guilt for giving up their own child from a teenage pregnancy.

Typically in films where female leads are depicted as rivals, the women often represent the antiquated stereotype of female friendships plagued by envy, jealousy, and competition over a male love interest. While Bad Girl explores a tumultuous relationship between Amy and Chloe, Edquist replaces the recycled trope of romantic rivals with one that sees the girls fight for something with much deeper meaning, a cause that drives both Amy and Chloe’s actions: family. Within 90 minutes, West and Weaving portray the quick rise and demise of a relationship that is doomed by jealousy. Initially, it is Amy’s insecurity that views Chloe as everything she is not – demure, flawless, and perfect daughter material. But when Chloe begins to earn Amy’s trust, their friendship gives way to a sexual relationship.

Edquist has created two adolescent female characters that break the cinematic norm of young women hesitantly exploring their sexual orientation. Often stereotyped as frightened and reluctant, Amy and Chloe are bold and fearless. Both girls are completely comfortable in their own skin. Sadly, it is after Chloe has intimately earned Amy’s trust, that their relationship disintegrates. The initial signs of an encouraging relationship between Amy and Chloe in the first act are quickly dashed when erratic flickers of disturbing behaviour disrupt Chloe’s otherwise charming temperament. When Amy learns of Chloe’s deception, the film shifts gears into a tense cat-and-mouse game, where Amy now finds herself fighting for survival, and protecting the family she never realised she needed until now. With this ironic twist, it is Chloe’s jealousy of Amy’s albeit fractured family life, that dismantles their fragile connection. While Bad Girl is a layered story that challenges many of the cinematic tropes that condemn similar films to dull predictability, it is ultimately West and Weaving’s emotionally raw and powerful performances that elevates the film from its overexposed genre of redemptive adoption stories.

While the yearning for a stable home and parental affection is the clear motivation behind Chloe’s impulsive and unhinged actions, the rationale for Amy’s behaviour is a bit more complicated. Her experiences in foster care have taught her to ward off any tender emotions with an excessive dose of skepticism and hostility. A poignant scene where Michelle gifts Amy with a family heirloom reveals the young woman’s internal struggle to keep her guard up, despite a clear longing to embrace Michelle’s maternal affection. It is these scenes that ground the film as a story about unconventional families, and an exploration of nature versus nurture as much as it is a psychological thriller. Edquist probes, “What is a family, and who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. Is blood really thicker than water?”

It is these universally relevant themes of family belonging, trust, and betrayal, that see Bad Girl transcend the boundary of an Australian independent film, to one capable of an international reception. The strong response from a trailer screening in Cannes suggests that Bad Girl can be simultaneously Australian – with its thrilling sequences amplified by the backdrop of the disquieting countryside – as well as internationally appealing in its exploration of family bonds. In a sharp departure from Australian director Fin Edquist’s previous comedic projects Bad Girl is a local film with scenes shot across Western Australia’s Swan Valley, Kalamunda, and Serpentine areas in 2015. As is the nature of independent films, the time and budget allowed for production can be a real stumbling block, but Edquist claims that the limitations in fact allowed the film to be distilled to its purest form. The real challenge the film faces is distribution. With Bad Girl being shown in just nine cinemas across Australia, its limited release means few will be able to heed Edquist’s warning: don’t underestimate the (bad) girl next door.

Review by Cindy Shi