At one point in That’s Not Me, a marvellously entertaining comedy that gives an hilariously poignant thoughtfulness to the idea of an existential crisis, the protagonist, almost forgetting she is trying to impress a guy she’s met at a party, says something along the lines of “I don’t watch many Australian films”.
Snuggled in the midst of some fiercely whippet-smart dialogue that is an admirable cut-above your usual cinematic laughfest, the self-referential line speaks to a problem besetting Australian films, of which this film is one, namely that not enough people are turning up to watch them.
But issues with domestic industry viewership aside, it also speaks to the character’s disengagement from what is supposed to be her passion; Polly (co-writer / director with husband Geoffrey Erdstein, Alice Foulcher) is, after all, an actor, one who, as the film opens holds a can of toilet deodoriser imagining she is accepting an Oscar.
It’s a fantastical scene that anyone who has ever dreamed of fulfilling their epic creative ambitions will know all too well, the ultimate affirmation that not only have you conceived of something impressively original and engaging but that people also connected with it.
The problem is that Polly, whose sister Amy (also Alice Foulcher, of course) is a far more successful actress who has gone from KFC commercial to soap opera to the dramatic and relational arms of Jared Leto, isn’t really even close to achieving her much-avowed dream of acting success.
Turning down the role that catapults her sister to the stellar success that Polly, a self-described “better actor” who topped drama in Year 11 at high school – Amy, she points out, failed drama, part of a wan attempt by Polly to bolster her self-perceived superior acting credentials – believes is rightfully hers, she lurches from DOA relationship with narcissistic wanna-be director Oliver (Rowan Davie) to dead-end cinema job to failed L.A. trip for the pilot season.
She’s not so much living the dream as clutching onto its long-dead zombie-ised entrails and hoping it will crawl its way somewhere promising and kind of in line with the dream she has held since she was a little girl.
But as That’s Not Me, which initially presents as a screwball comedy of sorts only to turn into something far more nuanced and insightful (though still funny), progresses you come to realise just how clever a film this is in so many ways.
A deeply reflective dramatic soul inside a comedic exterior, the film manages to balance these often competing demands with an aplomb that many of its big-budget contemporaries fail to manage.
Much of the credit for that successful tension between angst and hilarity is down to Foulcher’s finely-wrought, often sardonic performance as Polly – she does appear as Amy in a few scenes but mostly inhabit inhabits the character of struggling, doubting, resentful Polly to perfection – a character who could’ve come across as needy or excessively whiny or just plain dumb in lesser hands.
Much of that tendency towards a less than likeable protagonist is forestalled too by a smart, knowing script – Foulcher and her husband wrote the screenplay during a Parisian artistic residence in 2014 – that treats its protagonist as a real, living human being with vaulting dreams and imperfect execution, and not simply a comedic foil for a runaway, joke-punctured narrative.
The net effect is a film that is funny in a quiet, intelligent way, that connects to real concerns about ambition and hopes fulfilled (or not) and that treats all its characters, but most importantly Polly, as actual people you can relate to, in later scenes especially, quite profoundly.
That’s Not Me, when the bright lights of Hollywood have faded and they do in one what-the-hell-just-happened fish gut dumping kind of way, is really all about what you do when the dreams you have clutched fiercely all your life are worth about as much as expired Domino’s coupons – what on earth do you do next?
Foulcher and Erdstein’s exquisitely well-wrought and nuanced creation is far too savvy and clever to come up with some annoyingly pat answer to that great conundrum leaving us instead with a series of amusingly-delivered but simultaneously ruminative moments where Polly has to grapple with the elusive idea of what success in life means to her.
The joy of That’s Not Me is that it never shoehorns any kind of great life lesson into its admirably taut 85 minute running time; in contrast to Hollywood comedies which love their morality plays like an archetypal successful actor loves coke at wild party, the film sticks closely to the idea that life rarely hands up an inspiring road-to-Damascus moment on a silver tray.
Rather, you’re usually left with a series of messy, half-realised vignettes of self-discovery which, if you’re lucky, coalesce into some sort of pivotable, alternate life plan.
Not so good for Tony Robbins-type triumphal living, but perfect fodder for a film that has something to say and says it impressively well, serving up both drama and humour in a movie that never once loses momentum or focus, and which sticks to its guns right to its very nicely-fashioned end.
It’s the sort of film that should ensure you don’t emulate Polly and her lack of patriotic cinema viewing; if you go and see Thats Not Me, and you should, you’ll be entertained, think a little or a lot, and who knows, somewhere among the discarded popcorn and half-drunk Cokes, you might have your own life-changing epiphany (Oscar not necessarily included).