The energetic Australian indie Bilched touches on subjects familiar to coming-of-age stories – including youthful hedonism, awkward sexual encounters and the final days of school. By “youthful hedonism” I refer specifically to booze guzzling, weed smoking and pill popping: the three essential food groups for experimental teenagers captured in narratives of this ilk, which usually involve somebody falling into a swimming pool sooner or later.

However this Sydney-set feature – shot in a tight 21 days – isn’t all “vomit in the punch bowl then pass out in a bush”. There’s also a reflective and perhaps even wistful element to it, somewhere beneath the beer stains and stubbed-out spliffs. Not enough to make the drama accessible to a broad demographic, though it was never supposed to be; this film is obviously intended to appeal to the same kind of people it depicts.

One of Bilched’s key authors is among that demographic: the writer and star, Hal Cumpston, penned the script when he was 18, reportedly over a 10-day period. The film was directed by his father, Jeremy Cumpston, who successfully infuses it with a vigour one associates with scallywags decades his junior.

We first encounter Hal as he is in a mad hurry to make a theatre audition, in a frantic introductory scene that reminded me of Nash Edgerton’s early short film, Deadline. From the get-go Bilched has an invigorating pep and pace, shot with the sort of bling that comes from a resourceful cinematographer – in this instance Shane Kavanagh – determined not to let fiscal frugality impinge on their ability to create splashy visuals.

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Four teenagers in a car



It’s hard to say which is more effective: Hal Cumpston’s performance or his script

The gold standard of cost-effective, cranked-to-11 aesthetic in recent years is director Sean Baker’s turbo-charged iPhone-shot drama Tangerine, which makes even well-paced films like Bilched seem listless by comparison. Like Jonah Hill’s recent retro-flavoured coming-of-age pic, Mid90s, Bilched achieves an interesting aesthetic through Instagram-esque colour grading, coating streetside images with a striking but commonplace visual lacquer.

Hal’s audition is part of a bookend framing device, though the narrative is more concerned with the protagonist’s everyday life. His routine includes making wisecracks, talking back to teachers and engaging in schoolyard argy-bargy with frenemy Ella (Holly White). When Ella’s father (Rhys Muldoon) leaves her home alone and tells her to not, under any circumstances, have any parties when he’s gone – well, we know where this is going: straight to the swimming pool and the kids who’ve had too much to drink.

In this universe the acquisition of alcohol and pot are tasks of monumental significance; historical turning points in which legends are made and/or reputations ruined. The script isn’t slick or sly in the way of an adolescence-themed comedy with real wit, such as Superbad. Nor is it entirely sincere as a dramatic character study, like the recent and excellent Eighth Grade.

But Bilched is disciplined and punchy nonetheless, the film-makers demonstrating a reasonably good grasp on how to turn prosaic moments into amusing character-developing sequences. It is endearing in a funny sort of way: you kind of root for the protagonist, but also kind of want him to pipe down and grow up.

A still from the 2019 feature film Bilched, by Hal Cumpston



From the get-go Bilched has an invigorating pep and pace

Rather than authentic drama, per se, Bilched has authentic attitude, the source of which is Hal Cumpston’s distinctive stamp as writer and star. It’s hard to say which is more effective: his performance or his script, partly because they are so thoroughly enmeshed.

Coming-of-age movies are more likely than other genres to have unconventional leads. The modern Australian spin on this category of film was spearheaded by a mesmerisingly weird performance from the boisterous and gangly Bruce Spence in the 1971 classic, Stork. Cumpston’s performance isn’t at that level but he is still is a rare find: grounded in the reality of this world and yet somewhat larger than life.

It’s easy to forget his character is an aspiring actor, though it makes sense in hindsight – given Hal’s performative personality and drama-seeking demeanour. Cumpston’s presence, behind and in front of the camera, is a reminder that films can still feel fresh and spirited even if they aren’t particularly original. Despite the youthful hedonism, Bilched has brains and style.

Bilched is in Australian cinemas from 21 November



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