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Pawno
Australia 2016
Directed by Paul Ireland
Running time 89 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars


Synopsis:  Danny Williams (Damian Hill) works for Les Underwood (John Brumpton) in his Footscray pawn shop. His story it told as a single day unfolds and various customers including Kate (Maeve Dermody) who works in the nearby bookshop, come in and out of the 'pawno'. 

Pawno takes the “corner shop” style popularized by American films such as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991) and Wayne Wang’s 1995 duology, Smoke and Blue in the Face and combines it with the feral Western Suburbs sub-cultural world so beloved by Australian film-makers, particularly the novice ones.

The combination of the former’s relatively genial, wryly observational spirit and the latter’s Neanderthalish crudity does not work, something most clearly embodied in the key but icongruous plot device (an improbability seemingly un-noticed by the film’s makers) of situating a trendy Manhattan style bookshop in a low literacy area full of drug addicts, cheap Vietnamese cafés and fruit and vegetable vendors.

Which is not to say that this combination couldn’t have worked for one can quite clearly see the good intentions here.  What really kills this film is inexperience. Whilst both are experienced small screen actors, first time writer-producer Damian Hill and first time director Paul Ireland, on the one hand stick too close to the stylistic conventions to be anything short of predictable but on the other, handle these conventions so awkwardly that they fail to convince. To take one obvious example, at one stage a Neanderthal comes in to pawn a watch. He turns abusive and Les, despite being half his size but a hard-man duly beats the be-jesus out of him and with the help of Danny throws him in the alley.  Whereas this scene is set up for a return visit from the oick and his “crew” as he promised, later in the film he staggers out of the alley to see a couple of junkies drive off with his car.  It’s not the comic turn of events that makes us laugh as the editor’s poor-timing and/or Hill’s poorly structured screenplay that failed to establish any tonal continuity between the two scenes.

From its Kevin Smith-ish device of a couple of bantering junkies (Malcom Kennard and Mark Coles Smith), a cliché’d Vietnamese café manager (Ngoc Phan) to a gap toothed street-singer who pops up every now and then and so on to its larger narrative arc concerning Danny’s story, the screenplay is as under-developed and  over-familiar as Ireland’s direction unimaginative. It is precisely when experience does kick in as with John Brumpton, Kerry Armstrong and Tony Rickards as Harry, Les’s drinkin’ buddy that the film manages to give us a bit of hope. Shelley Farthing-Dawe’s photography of the Footscray area will also be a treat for locals. But there is not enough here to carry us over the weaknesses.

I know this is a harsh assessment but too many Australian films get made by over-enthusiastic novices. In principle Pawno had potential but it needed more experienced hands to bring it off.

 

 

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