Cate Blanchett as Tracy Heart
Sam Neill as Brad
Hugo Weaving as Lionel Dawson
Dustin Nguyen as Jonny
Martin Henderson as Ray Heart
Noni Hazlehurst as Janelle Heart
Joel Tobeck as Steven
Lisa McCune as Laura
Susie Porter as Jenny
Nina Liu as Mai
Directed by Rowan Woods
Rowan Woods’ Aussie crime drama centers on realistic characters brought to life by dramatic performances so strong you forget you’re watching actors.
Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett) has been off heroin for four years, managing a video store in Sydney, but when her ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) comes home, old memories reemerge, as she’s dragged into his drug scheme, which also involves her brother Ray (Martin Henderson), a junkie ex-rugby player (Hugo Weaving), and a ruthless gay druglord (Sam Neill).
At first glance, “Little Fish” might seem like any other crime movie set in the world of drugs, but actually, Rowan Woods has made a very Australian character drama on par with some of the finest films from “In the Bedroom” to “21 Grams.” Working from a solid screenplay by Jacqueline Perske, Woods makes you forget you’re watching a film by showing a cross-section of the lives of a small group of related people, connected by drugs and powerful human bonds.
At the heart of the story is Cate Blanchett’s Tracy, a woman trying to get past her former life as a junkie to move onto the next phase of her life. When we meet her, she’s in the midst of trying to get a bank loan to expand the video store she manages, and trying to care for longtime family friend Lionel, a former rugby star who is chronically ill due to his heroin addiction. She has known Lionel since she, her brother Ray and their Vietnamese friend Jonny were kids hanging out on the beach, but in the years since then, things have turned bad for all of them, as they got involved in drugs.
The movie uses a novel approach to introduce these characters, simply having them enter the picture without much fanfare, but then showing us more about them and their relationships as the film progresses. There is obviously a lot of history between them, but Woods never resorts to the obvious flashbacks to show the incidents referred to from their past. Almost forty minutes into the movie, we learn that Ray lost a leg in a car accident involving Jonny, but we never get the details, leaving it up to our imagination what happened.
The characters are so multi-layered that it’s easy to forget you’re watching actors, because all of them do their best at getting away from the type of role we often expect from them. This is the most obvious with Hugo Weaving’s Lionel, who not only sports some rare facial hair, but also shows off his range as an actor from the cockiness of a sports star to being as helpless as a small child while he’s trying to get off the heroin or reconcile his fragmented relationship with Brad. Sure, we’ve probably seen gay junkies in films before, but Weaving brings a sense of authenticity to this character that makes you really believe his very emotional scenes.
Likewise, Blanchett looks younger and gaunter than ever, turning Tracy into a rich character full of personality and emotion. When she is turned down by the bank loan–presumably due to the debt accumulated during her drug period–it’s hard not to feel for her predicament and understand why she’s so easily convinced by Johnny to use the video shop’s money as part of his drug scheme. Blanchett and Weaving are just amazing on screen together, and their relationship couldn’t be any more different than the elves they played in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The film’s strongest scenes usually involve just the two of them, but the conflict between Lionel and Tracy’s overprotective mother, played by Noni Hazlehurst, allows her to have a few stronger moments while trying to protect her daughter from the man who get her into drugs.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive in their ability to break type: rather than playing his usual soft-spoken nice guy, Sam Neill plays a druglord who has a thing for young boys and a long-standing relationship with Lionel, while a hirsute Martin Henderson ditches the American accent he usually sports to return to his Aussie roots. The most impressive transformation comes from Dustin Nguyen, best remembered as the Asian guy from “21 Jump Street” or “V.I.P.”, who knocks one out of the park as Tracy’s returning boyfriend, sharing an intimate moment with Blanchett’s character that’s shot in a way that is as emotional as it is erotic.
The entire look and feel of the film is unlike anything we’ve seen, mainly using handheld cameras and nontraditional shots that makes us feel like we’re part of the story. By doing this, Woods creates something both raw and realistic, but pervaded by a dreamlike quality throughout.
The story culminates in the three friends, Lionel, Brad and his crooked right hand man Steve converging on a meth lab outside the city, at which point the film reverts to more traditional crime film storytelling, but the final confrontation plays out in a way that makes it seems as if we’re a fly on the wall as something unfolds in front of us. The film’s conclusion may not satisfy everyone, because it leaves us wondering what happens to Tracy next, but real life is never wrapped up in nice little packaged endings, and leaving the next part of the story open to the viewer’s own interpretation makes “Little Fish” that much more special.
The Bottom Line:
“Little Fish” is a welcome relief from the action-driven crime films coming out of Hollywood, because it never loses sight of its characters or the relationships that play such an important part in this story. It should definitely appeal to anyone who appreciates fine character dramas that combine great writing and acting.
Little Fish is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.