Film Review: Accidents Happen (2009)

By James Madden. Viewed 17/04/10

On one perfect, sunny Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, I strolled down Lygon Street to the Cinema Nova to see a preview of a film called Accidents Happen. Preceding the film was a question and answer session with director Andrew Lancaster and Oscar-winning star Geena Davis. After a delightful half hour that included a Thelma and Louise anecdote, as well as many more insights into the world of a powerful female in Hollywood, the movie began.

Within the opening seconds of the film, we are greeted with the image of suburban America with a flag flying in the front yard of the house that is cast upon us. What is so interesting about this image is that the America flag is actually pitched in the ground of a New South Wales property, instead of the urban Connecticut where the story of the film is located.


As is often the case when watching a film set in America, but made in Australia, the Australian audience member asks the question: Why? Why was this film that is about an inherently American family in middle class America made in Australia? Usually the answer relates to money matters. And in this case, money plays a huge factor. With the new funding scheme named the “Producer Offset”, established by Screen Australia in 2007, the film became much more financeable than to actually shoot closer to where the story takes place.

So why did Australian Andrew Lancaster choose to make an American story in his directorial debut? Stemming from a one man show performed by writer Brian Carbee, Lancaster turned Carbee’s show into the short feature “In Search of Mike” in 2000. Carbee played his own mother, the character that Geena Davis plays in the film. The short film was successful, but after its release, a set of tragic events occurred that inspired the feature Accidents Happen.

Accidents Happen is about a family, the Conways, who go through a series of unfortunate events. The first, occurring in 1974, leaves one of the four Conway children dead, and one a vegetable in a hospital for the rest of his life. 8 years later, we follow the family through more tumultuous times.

The dysfuctional-family-falling-apart drama has been seen on the screen repeatedly over the last decade and more, now becoming a more dominant portrayal than the Leave it to Beaver family. However, Accidents Happen is more just than the suburban family drama.

The theme of fate that guides destruction upon the central character of Billy, is used brilliantly, not only showcasing a strong script by Carbee, but displaying the beautiful work of Lancaster, his cinematographer Ben Nott (Daybreakers) and production designer Elizabeth Mary Moore (The Square, Russian Doll). Through this collaboration, a Sydney suburb has been transformed into East Coast America, with a slight inclination towards the popular American Gothic element that is featured in the independent family drama with foggy roads, strong warm-dark coloured interiors and exteriors, perfectly manicured lawns, and a familiar backyard after-school time feel created with the use of sprinklers.

Leading the cast of mostly Australian actors, is American actress Geena Davis. Performing the matriarchal character Gloria, who was the inspiration for Brian Carbee’s one man show, Davis is simply splendid with an acid tongue, which despite its acerbic and quick-witted jabs, never takes away from the fact that she loves her family. Her character is tremendously flawed and it is that which makes her so interesting. Davis uses the hysterical words she is given to comedic perfection through all of her scenes (“And if my grandmother had balls she’d be my grandfather” for example), extracting laughs then tears. It is this blend between the tragic and the comedic, seen throughout the film in all its elements, that makes Accidents Happen so enjoyable.

Harrison Gilbertson delivers a strong performance playing Billy. It is through Billy’s existence that the accidents within the film have the common link. Billy is not only quite accident prone, but is also surrounded by an abnormal array of accidents, ranging from small and trivial to the macabre and tragic. Another element of Accidents Happen’s success sees the children being featured in principal roles with more screen time than in most films, which was quite the gamble Lancaster took with mostly inexperienced actors. Luckily it payed off, and similar to the rest of the young cast, Gilbertson shows much promise. In successfully playing the protagonist, and after his performance in the Australian film Blessed, Gilbertson’s future in films looks bright.

The film features a swell of notable non diegetic (sounds not in the film world but outside the narrative and heard as we watch the film) Australian music from Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” to the beautiful “Blood” by the Middle East. While the songs could be described as anachronistic, they are not, as they are played over the top of the actual movie, and not heard by the characters, which has been seen before in features such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in 2005.

While casting mainly inexperienced actors in the roles of the children, Lancaster has struck gold with Davis and the rest of the “adult” cast, featuring Sarah Woods, Joel Tobeck and Erik Thompson. Lancaster has made a film that balances being  funny and poignant, along with capturing technical shots that are similar in style to Kathryn Bigelow’s slow-motion shots in this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker. Whether its set in Australia or set in America, Accidents Happen is one film that must be seen at all costs!

Accidents Happens is released through Hopscotch films and opens Australia wide this Thursday 22nd of April.


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1 Comment

  • The Machinist and Planet 51 are both Spanish films that appear for all intents and purposes to be American. Obviously it’s aiming to appeal to a wide audience. If they had Australian accents, Australians would be saying “not another Australian kitchen sink drama” and Americans just wouldn’t bother because it’s not American. The world loves American cinema. Hell, The Matrix and many other US productions have been filmed here, using largely Australian actors.

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