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‘The Year My Voice Broke’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 12, 1988

John Duigan, the writer-director of the new Australian film "The Year My Voice Broke," has a talent for evoking the tortures and exquisite longings of adolescence. Danny (Noah Taylor), his 15-year-old hero here, is the embodiment of all these gridlocked teen emotions. A scrawny kid with long bony arms and a dramatic sweep of dead-black hair, he would like to be like the rockers he hears on the radio, a rebel troubadour fanning the flames of his lonely, burning heart. This, he thinks, would get the attention of his childhood friend Freya (Loene Carmen), a tomboyish beauty with hair the color of damp straw, who has emerged suddenly as a maddeningly attractive young woman and become the level ground to which his thoughts constantly run.

Set in 1962 in the ravishingly stark Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, "The Year My Voice Broke" (a terrible title) sets you up for a dreamy coming-of-age saga, then delivers something tougher, moodier and more challenging. The movie, with its seedy, small-town setting and its atmosphere of hidden-away secrets, almost has the feel of a gothic story from the South. Or else that's the kind of tale it might have been if Duigan had extended his imagination and pushed his material a little further.

Though Freya is a year older, she and Danny are soul mates, sharing the most intimate secrets. They even speculate on telepathy, trying to broadcast their thoughts to each other through the night. They also formulate theories about the force fields of energy that accumulate around events and how places become museums for those vibrations, both good and bad. Jonah (played by Bruce Spence, who appeared in the "Mad Max" movies), a railroad signal man working on the "first truly erotic Australian novel," helps them refine their thoughts, adding his memories of a room in the Lord Byron hotel. Because of his obsession with Freya, Danny calls his bedroom a "museum of desire," and often he will lie on his bed there, pressing a photo of her and a pair of her panties to his forehead and dreaming of the impossible.

This isn't an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy, so the impossible never happens, and it's a credit to the movie that it doesn't. Though she refers to Danny as her boyfriend, Freya falls in love with a hyperkinetic local boy named Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), who plays fullback for the town rugby squad and periodically runs afoul of the authorities by stealing a Mercedes and taking it out to the race track in an effort to best his previous records.

The richest scenes in the film are those in which Danny plunges masochistically into his jealousy of Trevor and Freya, accompanying them on dates and following them on his bike to their parking spots. Moments like these carry us beyond the territory covered in most films about teens. And so do the performances, particularly those of Taylor and Mendelsohn. (The wicked giggling cackle that Mendelsohn gives Trevor is a brilliant expression of the character's sweet dementia.) And Carmen, who's never performed outside of school productions, is a fetching camera subject, a combination of Ellen Barkin and the young Julie Christie. There's something wild and haunted in her, and this, combined with her willfulness and boredom, her need to break out and do something, creates a kind of emotional suspense. You're not quite sure what she's capable of.

Duigan's greatest strength is that he never condescends to his characters' emotions. He sees adolescence as a season of poetry in life, a time of excess when feelings run out of control. The raw New South Wales settings intensify this mood as well.

There were sequences throughout the film where I felt my attention wander, primarily, I think, because Duigan had strayed into overfamiliar areas, but about halfway through, the movie seems to lock in on its themes. As the picture progresses, Danny grows in stature. When he sings his rendition of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" after he and Freya are picked up by the police for their contact with Trevor, who's on the run, his voice is strong and steady. Now, finally, it can carry the weight he wants it to carry.

"The Year My Voice Broke" is rated PG-13 and contains some adult material.

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