An affable Australian comedy that shouts its message loud and clear, but does so with warmth.
The Merger directed by Mark Grentell.
There’s little that’s subtle about Australian Rules football, predicated as it is upon the thrill of big wins, exciting goals and skilful displays of talent week after week and season after season. There’s little that should be subtle about advocating for tolerance, too; fighting against prejudice, stamping out discrimination and encouraging an open-minded society are matters to shout about, rather than whisper.
Accordingly, as it shapes its narrative around a rural footy team in an insular community that’s apprehensive about welcoming refugees into its ranks, The Merger displays little in the way of nuance. Based on the stage production of the same name, what this Mark Grentell (Backyard Ashes)-directed, Damien Callinan (The Wedge)-written and -starring effort lacks in understatement, however, it tries to make up for in heart. It’s a movie that blasts its message so loudly and clearly, it could be heard above the din of the MCG at full capacity, but it does so with warm intentions.
As onesie-wearing wannabe filmmaker Neil Barlow (Rafferty Grierson, TV’s Underbelly Files: Chopper) explains to the camera in the feature’s opening moments, The Merger’s protagonist is hardly the town hero. Retired AFL footballer Troy Carrington (Callinan, The Doctor Blake Mysteries) was once beloved by all but, after injuring himself running through the banner on grand final day and then supporting the closure of the local mill, he’s long been branded a town-killer. Alas, when the Bodgy Creek Roosters are left without a base (due to asbestos), a coach (due to health issues) and a full team (due to a lack of numbers), Troy is their only option. With the support of Neil’s widowed mother Angie (Kate Mulvany, Secret City), he endeavours to bring the club back to life.
Made plain in the above description, The Merger takes every expected path and makes every convenient connection. Angie just happens to be the daughter-in-law of the vehemently opposed ex-coach (John Howard, Last Cab to Darwin), as well as the person spearheading efforts to integrate asylum seekers into the town, for example. And, one of the men that she’s working with – Syrian refugee Sayyid (Fayssal Bazzi, Down Under) – just happens to have picked up a penchant for AFL while detained on his way to Australia. Furthermore, when the new import makes his way onto the team, he’s embraced by some but antagonised by others; the kindly Snapper (Josh McConville, 1%) epitomising the former extreme, and the loutish Carpet Burn (Angus McLaren, Hotel Mumbai) the latter.
Indeed, in adapting his own one-man play into a starring cinema role within a broader ensemble piece, Callinan isn’t interested in serving up surprises. Neither is Grentell, who brings the script to the screen with a jovial air from start to finish. Instead, every writing and directorial choice favours two things above all else: the film’s overarching statement and its feel-good vibe. Consequently, whether through clichéd dialogue that occasionally offers a few witty one-liners, or in its sunny colour palette, The Merger attempts to evoke an amiable mood, espouse the importance of simple human decency in the face of racism and xenophobia, and raise a smile while doing so.
The end result proves a by-the-numbers affair brightened up by palatable packaging and palpable passion – and with ample charm in its crowd-pleasing vibe and its cause. Hitting all of the required marks rather than kicking any unforeseen goals, The Merger a friendly exhibition match of a movie: staged in pleasant conditions, with players happy to be there and eager to enjoy the experience, and with everyone banding together for an obvious purpose.
3 stars ★★★
Director: Mark Grentell
Australia, 2018, 103 mins
Release date: 6 September 2018