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Saturday, Dec. 4, 1999

The silence of a little lamb


Some movies get so close you find yourself wanting to call up the director. You want to tell this person what a great job he or she did, invite him or her over for a casual dinner and be friends for life. But this applies to only a few select filmmakers.

Wonderful as he may be, it's hard to envision such a scenario with Steven Spielberg. Would you want to eat at the same table with such a personage? What if he's fussy about the brand of mineral water? Besides, the man probably has about 300 agents that deal with such calls and recite answers straight out of their employees' manual: "Oh you want to make him enchiladas? Of course I'll tell him. He's always happy to consider invitations. You have a nice day now, bye!"

But with a picture like "Amy," one feels sure director Nadia Tass is different. She probably answers all her calls personally. And if you were to tell her to come over for enchildas, she's likely to reply that she knows a great recipe, passed on from her mother, and will be happy to share it over dinner.

"Amy" is an Australian movie wearing a big, beefy T-shirt with the words: "It's great to be an Aussie" or some such sentiment. More eloquent than 100 travel brochures, it speaks of the enviable casualness, the abundant charm and the honest-to-God freshness of life in Australia. Totally devoid of cynicism or nasty curve balls, you become convinced that director Tass never had a mean thought in her life. Ditto for her characters who are about the most generous, lovable, matey bunch one could hope to meet on screen. OK, so there's one unpleasant character, but even he's angelic compared to the psychopaths we keep seeing these days.

Eight-year-old Alana de Roma plays the title role, a little girl who lost her powers of speech and hearing in one stroke. This was right after her rock star dad, Will Anker (Australian rock musician Nick Barker), died on stage four years back. Now she lives with grieving mom Tania (Rachel Griffiths) in an old ranch house. Besides worrying about her daughter, Tania is harassed by child welfare officials who insist on putting Amy in a special school for disabled children. Rather than be charged with negligence, Tania decides to cut and run.

The pair move to downtown Melbourne where they rent a picturesque little house with a courtyard for -- get this -- $100 a week. Tania must leave Amy alone during the day while she searches for work, but fortunately the neighbors take an interest in the little girl. Most earnest is out-of-work musician Robert (Ben Mendelsohn) who discovers that Amy can hear and speak, only if the medium is music.

Thus the good adults of Melbourne unite in getting a rise out of Amy -- to communicate with her, one must sing the sentences and Amy replies in tune. Even cops (Tass depicts them as incredibly warm-hearted and sentimental) and thugs (who wouldn't last 24 hours in L.A.) start singing on street corners. The wonderful clincher to the whole thing is that none of them can sing their way out of a paper bag. There they are, hearty Aussies, bellowing their hearts out and sounding terrible.

Amy, on the other hand, trills angelically. Even when she has to go to the restroom, she sings her desperation in sweet soprano: "Mummy, I have to goooooo."

Apart from de Roma, whom the Japanese press is already dubbing the "little girl genius," the one to watch is Rachel Griffiths. She walks across the screen and the theater is filled with hot, dry air, and a sky of Tasmanian blue opens overhead. She just grows more beautiful with every picture -- a kind of wild attractiveness unblemished by American or European influences. A novel savage in the flesh, it's a wonder why Hollywood hasn't been pounding on her door (apart from a bit part in "My Best Friend's Wedding"). Griffiths' portrayal of a damaged mom is so sincere every time she sobs you want to jump in there and offer a coffee, a hanky, a back rub! Meryl Streep has found a rival to be reckoned with.

Fans of Aussie rock will be happy to know the entire soundtrack was written by Nick Barker. His duet with Amy is one of the best numbers and recalls something of the 1937 production, "One Hundred Men and a Girl." In fact, there seems to be a big nugget of Old Hollywood buried somewhere among the Melbourne scenery -- the same element of starry-eyed trust and brave-faced courage.

"Amy" is about a child, but it's the hardened grown-ups who will recognize its worth.



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