It takes fifteen minutes of screen time before Karen (Shai Pittman), the young Aboriginal heroine of Beck Cole’s Here I Am, finds a room of her own. Before this, we have seen her riding away from prison in a taxi, blissfully feeling the wind on her face; walking through dark Adelaide streets, clutching a box of treasured possessions; and prostituting herself to a stranger in a pub in exchange for a night’s accommodation.
At last she arrives at Temple House, a woman’s shelter run by the good-tempered, mildly officious Big Red (Vanessa Worrall), who gives her a guided tour and lays down the rules: no male guests, no smoking. Naturally, when Karen is left alone, the first thing she does is light a cigarette. She sits on a bench by the window, watching the smoke curl up past the white gauze curtain: an image of calm.
Much of the strength of Here I Am lies in such contemplative moments; storytelling – the fetish of Australian script assessors – is a secondary concern. The simple plot follows the progress of Karen, a reformed drug addict, in the week after her release, as she strives to regain custody of her daughter Rosie (Quinaiha Scott) despite the wishes of Lois (Marcia Langton), her fiercely respectable mother.
Inevitably, this début feature will be measured against the justly acclaimed Samson and Delilah (2009), directed by Cole’s husband, Warwick Thornton, who serves as cinematographer here. Lacking the sweep and audacity of Thornton’s film, Here I Am belongs to a relatively straightforward social-realist tradition, its poetry embedded in the quotidian rhythms of waking, embarking on the day’s business, and returning home.
The women of Temple House may be battlers, but they have plenty of time on their hands to flip through magazines, do puzzles, watch television, or ponder the ups and downs of life. Karen turns out to be a budding artist, sketching portraits as she smokes; she is also some kind of religious believer, regularly asking God to help her mend her ways.
The cast of Here I Am blends experienced actors with amateurs whose delivery is often on the awkward side, but this criticism risks missing the point of a film in which the struggle to master ‘official’ language is a recurring theme. Karen’s habitual whine suggests a mocking refusal to be kept in her place; one of the only characters who rises to eloquence is the bipolar Anita (Betty Sumner), an older woman used as a mouthpiece for the film’s socio-political ideas. ‘Look at us blackfellas ... a quarter of us are locked up, and if that isn’t bad enough, when we get out, half end up back inside!’
This could easily be Karen’s fate, too, a reality made plain by a subplot involving Vanessa (Yanja Thompson), another young resident of Temple House. Nearing the end of a period of home detention, she runs off to see her sick son, only to be picked up at the bus depot and sent back to prison. ‘We’ve got our job to do,’ says a policeman, not unreasonably. Yet Karen’s hopeless fury at the situation remains just as valid on its own terms.
If the characters have trouble making their voices heard, music serves as an alternative lingua franca. Cliff Bradley’s score often feels like a syrup ladled over scenes that might have played better without accompaniment. But Cole and her team are always at ease when cutting scenes to the rhythm of rock songs by the likes of P.J. Harvey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The film peaks emotionally with two extended musical sequences: a sing-along to Archie Roach’s anti-domestic-violence anthem ‘Walking Into Doors’, and a campfire rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’.
At other times, the feeling in the film is barely contained within a naturalistic framework: the actors seem poised to address the audience directly, as a singer would. This is especially true of Langton, whose idiosyncratic acting technique involves striking a series of rigid poses: sticking her hands on her hips, or holding out her arms in a pantomime of rejection that still holds the possibility of an embrace.
In a central clash between mother and daughter, the two women position themselves on either side of a table, framed in two-shot as if on a stage: the characters seem trapped in their destructive attitudes to one another, a poignant effect impossible to separate from performances that could be viewed as conventionally ‘stiff’. Still more remarkable is a close-up of Lois turned away from Karen, face frozen in impenetrable grief; her lips tremble faintly, as if rehearsing all the things she could never say. If a picture is usually worth a thousand words, there is a shelf-full of history here.
Here I Am, written and directed by Beck Cole. 87 minutes. Rated M. Released 2 June 2011