The prize for the best Australian feature in this year's Melbourne International Film Festival has gone to a coming-of-age comedy with a difference.
The Age critics prize for the best Australian feature film at MIFF has been awarded to Girl Asleep, a unique coming-of-age story that combines fantasy, surrealism and a great dollop of cringe and nostalgia-worthy 1970s style to great comic and emotional effect.
Rosemary Myers' debut feature will now sit alongside Fred Schepisi's Eye of the Storm, Amiel Courtney-Wilson's Hail and Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours in having won the award.
Age film critic Jake Wilson, Sunday Age critic Craig Mathieson, film writer Stephanie Bunbury, national film editor Karl Quinn and Fairfax national entertainment editor Matthew Burgess chose Girl Asleep from a field of seven eligible features.
It beat out Abe Forsythe's Down Under, a dark comedy about the Cronulla riots, the time-shifting romance The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, true-crime chiller Joe Cinque's Consolation, high-school musical Emo The Musical, and the thrillers Bad Girl and The Killing Ground.
The film stars a pair of 16-year-old Melbourne high school students, Bethany Whitmore as the awkward Greta and Harrison Feldman as her geeky best friend Elliott, in the lead roles.
The judges were unanimous in praising their performances, while also commending the film's bold production design, its commitment to the psychological truth of its characters, and the intense attention to detail evident in the thoughtful framing and clever incorporation of titles into mise-en-scene.
"The film takes some enormous imaginative leaps but there's a wonderful mix of the miserable uncertainty of adolescence and its effervescent joy that means it never becomes cloying," said Bunbury.
"It shows you can have emotional realism without literal realism – even before the fantasy element comes in," added Wilson.
Girl Asleep was originally developed as a play for the Adelaide Festival. It was the third play in a rites-of-passage trilogy directed by theatre veteran Myers and written by Matthew Whittet, who appears in the film as Greta's father, for Windmill Theatre. But even before the script was finished plans were in place to develop it for the screen through the Adelaide Film Festival's Hive program.
Despite their background in theatre, Myers and Whittet always had in mind a work informed by the films and filmmakers they admired – Wes Anderson, David Lynch, the awkward comedy of Napoleon Dynamite.
"Why shouldn't there be stories for 14- and 15-year-olds that are as visually eye-popping and intricate and full of texture as an art-house film for 30-year-olds," Whittet says.
The Age award comes after the film won the grand jury prize at the Seattle Film Festival in June. "The whole thing has been an amazing ride," says Myers. "Making this was like film school for me, and now to have people respond to it in this way is just wonderful."
Girl Asleep will have an encore screening at ACMI on Sunday at 6.30pm. It will be released nationally in September.