Sydney Film Festival - Australian films feast on fear and surprise

The Sydney Film Festival's selection of Australian films take our collective imagination down a twistier hole than ever before.
Sydney Film Festival - Australian films feast on fear and surprise

Remember when we used to be genteel? Image: Lambs of God.

The Sydney Film Festival is a constellation of small planets, the perfect habitat for all sorts of different kinds of tragic. For Screenhub, this is a chance to reveal some of the new batch of Australian films  which will recur again and again on the festival circuit.

Have we seen a bunch with such unusual story worlds before? Every dollar is pushed to the edge. 

Inset paras come from the program.


Palm Beach

In Rachel Ward’s funny, uplifting drama/comedy, a group of lifelong friends reunite for a party at Sydney’s Palm Beach; but tension mounts when deep secrets emerge.

In her former life as an actor, Rachel Ward was the recipient of several international drama awards and nominations, including two Golden Globe nods. She has directed several short films including Blindman’s BluffThe Big House and Martha’s New Coat. Her feature film debut Beautiful Kate (also playing at SFF this year) played at SFF and Toronto in 2009.

Written by Ward and Joanna Murray-Smith,  produced by Bryan Brown and Deborah Balderstone, shot by Bonnie Elliott, edited by Nick Mayers.


In competition we have 

Judy and Punch

Mirrah Foulkes's astonishing, indefinable feature debut reimagines the Judy & Punch puppet show as a blackly comic feminist revenge tale starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman.

Mirrah Foulkes is an Australian actor, writer and director, who graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2003. She wrote and directed three award-winning short films: Dumpy Goes to The Big Smoke, which won the Rouben Mamoulian Award at SFF 2012, Florence Has Left The Building and Trespass. Judy & Punch, her first feature film, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

It was produced by Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton and Danny Gabai, shot by Stefan Duscio, edited by Dany Cooper, designed by Jo Ford with Edie Kurzer on costume. 

Hearts and Bones

In Ben Lawrence’s beautifully acted debut feature, a war photographer (Hugo Weaving) and a refugee (Andrew Luri) discover a photograph that threatens to destroy them both.

Ben Lawrence is an internationally award-winning director and photographer. His short films have screened at Edinburgh, Clermont-Ferrand, Los Angeles, San Gio and Sao Paulo film festivals. In 2018, his critically acclaimed debut feature documentary Ghosthunter screened at multiple festivals around the world and won the Documentary Australia Foundation Award at SFF.

Written by Lawrence and Beatrix Christian, it was produced by Mat Reeder, shot by Hugh Miller, edited by Phillip Horn, designed by Carlo Crescini, art directed by Catherine Rynne and costumed by Rita Carmody, with music by Rafael May.



Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat shine as best friends who live in a haze of drink, drugs and one-night stands, in the hilarious new film by Australian Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays).

Written by Emma Jane Unsworth, produced by Sarah Brocklehurst, Rebecca Summerton, Cormac Fox and Sophie Hyde, edited and shot by Bryan Mason. 

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan

An emotional and visceral exploration of a key battle in the Vietnam war – pitting 108 young Australian soldiers against 2500 – by Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Australia Day, SFF 2017)

A tremendous cast – including Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Alexander England, Daniel Webber and Richard Roxburgh – bring the battle and each soldiers' heroism vividly to life. Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is the important story of men caught up in a politically unpopular war, whose courage has long been under-acknowledged.

Written by Stuart Beattie, directed by Kriv Stenders, shot by Ben Nott, edited by Veronika Jenet and produced by Martin Walsh, John Schwarz, and Michael Schwarz.

Dark Place

Australian genre cinema takes an exciting leap forward with Dark Place, a quintet of tales that approach post-colonial Indigenous history through the lenses of horror and fantasy. Bjorn Stewart brings outback zombies into the frame in the rollicking splatter comedy Killer Native. An insomniac questions her sanity in Liam Phillip's suspenseful Foe. Supernatural forces visit a housing commission estate in the gritty Vale Light by Rob Braslin. Gothic horror shrouds the woods in Perun Bonser's atmospheric The Shore, and female oppression and revenge take centre stage in Kodie Bedford's punchy Scout.

Emu Runner

In an outback NSW town a young Indigenous girl forms a very special bond with a wild emu, in a unique Australian story of love and loss.

Director Imogen Thomas’s debut was made over 15 years, in close collaboration with the Indigenous community of Brewarrina in western NSW. 

A lyrical and poetic film grounded in social realism and emphasising the importance of Country, community and storytelling, Emu Runner is recommended for ages 8 and up.

Written and directed by Imogen Thomas, shot by Michael Gibbs, edited by Jenny Hicks and Nicole Norelli and produced by Victor Evatt, Imogen Thomas, Antonia Barnard, John Fink, and Gabriel Barber-Shipton.

I am Mother 

Grant Sputore's exciting feature debut takes the nature vs. nurture debate into a vast underground laboratory. Clara Rugaard gives a star-making performance as Daughter, a young adult whose only companion since birth has been Mother, a caring and compassionate robot programmed to re-establish the human race following cataclysmic events.

Written by Michael Lloyd Green, produced by Tim White and Kelvin Munro, starring Clara Rugaard, Hilary Swank and the voice of Rose Byrne, shot by Steve Annis, edited by Sean Lahiff.

Sequin in a Blue Room

Favouring the instant gratification of anonymous, no-strings sexual encounters over meaningful relationships, high schooler Sequin is part of the always logged-on, but never-engaged, hook-up generation. He ghosts ex-partners and remains emotionally unavailable. That's until he finds his way to an anonymous sex party, where a whole new dizzyingly alluring world unfolds before him. In one scene, Sequin connects with a mysterious stranger, but they are separated suddenly. Utterly fixated on this man, Sequin sets off on an exhilarating and perilous mission to track him down. The world premiere of an accomplished debut by Samuel Van Grinsven, Sequin in a Blue Room is a breath of fresh air from the independent Australian queer film scene.

Directed by Samuel Van Grinsven, written by Van Grinsven and Jory Anast, produced by Sophie Hattch and Linus Gibson, it was shot by Jay Grant and Carina Burke and edited by Timothy Guthrie. 

Suburban Wildlife

Set among the red roofs and concrete pools of Sydney's suburbs, the staunchly DIY Suburban Wildlife introduces writer/director Imogen McCluskey, her team of talented co-creators and an ensemble cast that brings to life the story's protagonists. During the last week of a long, hazy summer, four friends take stock of their lives before the “mother” of the group, Louise, relocates to London. As the reality of post-university life sets in, the once tight-knit group fractures. Nina grapples with her sexual identity, Alice struggles to lower her defences and Kane crumbles under the weight of his friends' expectations. Is their friendship strong enough to survive the next phase of their lives?

Produced by Imogen McCluskey, Sophie Hattch, Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla, written by McCluskey and Barbeau-Scurie, shot by Lucca Barone-Peters and edited by Adam Shean and Sophie Hattch.

The Nightingale

Australia's dark colonial past is examined in the story of Clare (Aisling Fanciosi, magnificent), an Irish-born convict who's served her sentence. But nothing can stop Clare's abuse at the hands of Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an ambitious and amoral British lieutenant. So begins an unforgettable tale of violence and retribution in which Clare forms an uneasy alliance with a young Indigenous guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, Best Young Actor award, Venice). The Nightingale is frequently brutal and shocking – and necessarily so. Transcending traditional boundaries of the revenge thriller, Kent's savagely beautiful film confronts us with uncomfortable truths about the formation of the Commonwealth we call home.

Slam (Australian and French)

Adam Bakri (Omar, SFF 2014) stars as Ricky, a Sydney café owner and Muslim refugee who is proudly assimilated into Australian culture. Ricky is estranged from his sister Ameena (Danielle Horvat), a hijab-wearing, politicised slam poet who is unafraid to air her views on Australian society. When Ameena disappears after a gig one night, Ricky is forced to revisit his internal conflicts over his own identity as he and his mother desperately search for her. When the right-wing media seizes on the story, speculating that Ameena has fled the country to join the Islamic State, the family suffers a barrage of scrutiny – even as they fear it could be true. Rachael Blake (Lantana, SFF 2001; Sleeping Beauty, SFF 2011) is superb as the troubled police officer in charge of investigating the case.

Directed and written by Partho Sen-Gupta, it was produced by Michael Wrenn, Tenille Kennedy and Marc Irmer, shot by Bonnie Elliott and edited by Annick Raoul.

The film is in the program strand for Special PresentationsFestival Hits.


On other screens

Lambs of God

Jeffrey Walker’s (Ali’s Wedding SFF 2017) dark, gothic and twistedly-erotic Foxtel mini-series, is about a secluded nunnery threatened by the arrival of a handsome young priest.

Forgotten by the rest of the world, the nuns live a humble life inside a dilapidated monastery: working, praying and telling each other dark fairy tales. One day, Father Ignatius (Sam Reid, The Railway ManStanding Up for Sunny, playing at SFF 2019), stumbles upon them. The three sisters of St Agnes, played superbly by Ann Dowd (The Handmaid's Tale), Essie Davis (Game of ThronesThe Babadook) and Jessica Barden (The Lobster) must defend their lives, existence and beliefs when the priest attempts to sell their land from under them. What follows is macabre, blackly comic and disturbingly erotic, delivering a provocative and compelling mini-series.

Standing Up for Sunny

Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte stars in this charming Australian rom-com about a loner with cerebral palsy who is roped into helping a comedian (Philippa Northeast) overcome her shyness.

Mitte, who has cerebral palsy in real life, gives a winning performance as Travis, a young man living in a ramshackle Sydney rental whose disability contributes to his social isolation and anger management issues. When he loses his maintenance job after lashing out at bullies, Travis ends up in a pub, where he puts his withering sarcasm to good use defending Sunny – a reluctant up-and-comer on the comedy circuit – from a sexist heckler. Soon Mikey (Sam Reid), the pub's owner and Sunny's overbearing boyfriend, hires Travis to help train Sunny in the art of the comeback, and naturally sparks ensue – along with romance and laughs aplenty. Standing Up for Sunny is a lively comedy with plenty to say about living with disability and discrimination.

Produced by Michael Pontin, Jamie Hilton, and Drew Bailey, written and directed by Steve Vidler, shot by Mark Bliss and edited by Dany Cooper. 

No image supplied

David Tiley

Wednesday 8 May, 2019

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub. He is a writer in screen media with a long mostly freelance career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.

Twitter: @DavidTiley1