(director: Jane Campion; screenwriter: Helen Garner; cinematographer: Julian Penney; editor: Bill Russo; music: Martin Armiger; cast: Emma Coles (Louise), Kris Bidenko (Kelly), Kris McQuade (Janet, Louise’s mother), Stephen Leeder (Jim), Debra May (Chris, Kelly’s mother), Peter Hehir (Malcolm, Kelly’s stepfather), Sean Travers (Matt), Kerry Dwyer (Alison); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jan Chapman; New Yorker Films; 1986-Australia)

“Has something personal to say that is poignant.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jane Campion (“Sweetie”) makes her feature-length directorial debut with Two Friends, a psychological drama about the changing friendship over a ten month period between two 15-year-old girls, Louise (Emma Coles) and Kelly (Kris Bedenko), both from divorced working-class families living in the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. The film is told in reverse chronological order, as it begins in July with the funeral for Kelly from a drug overdose. The girls have drifted hopelessly apart with the studious Louise attending the elite City Girl’s High School and the fun-loving Kelly living on the street and experimenting with drugs. The narrative cuts back to February, to January, to December, and finally to when the girls were unshakable close friends as classmates in October. This gimmicky dramatic structure only made the film more puzzling but didn’t help shed more light on this simple story, scripted by Helen Garner, as there seemed to be no creative benefit for it to be viewed backwards. Campion said she was inspired by a Harold Pinter play Betrayal, which used the same backwards device for its narrative.

It was made for Australian TV in 1986 and shot on 16-millimeter, and was released for a theatrical showing in America in 1996. I saw it on a New Yorker Films video. What this low-budget film does reveal in insightful flashes that makes it a worthy effort, is the remarkable artistic talents of Campion and her unique filmmaking style and her ability to get a grip on the feminine mystique. Despite lacking the polish of her later films, Two Friends has something personal to say that is poignant. It makes its main point about how much alike the girls were before their split and how influential parents are in shaping the lives of their children.

As the five monthly titled chapters unfold, it becomes apparent that the girls take different paths when they attend separate schools. Both girls were set on together attending City Girl’s High School, and they are relieved when they pass the entrance exam. Only Kelly’s gruff stepfather Malcolm (Peter Hehir), at the last minute, after attending a reception where the girls’ choir sings 16th-century madrigals turns him off so much, changes his mind and refuses to let her go because the school is elitist. This causes Kelly to reject her family, rebel with a punkish spiked haircut, and suddenly move out.

In sharp contrast Louise’s mother Janet (Kris McQuade) is more understanding and sympathetic of her sometimes snotty daughter, as their relationship has some bumps on the road but never crashes. Maybe that’s all it takes to get over the hump of adolescence.

Campion is sensitive to the girls, but purposely views them in a detached clinical way as if she were conducting a scientific experiment and didn’t want to influence the results with subjectivity. The chilling effects of this unsentimental tact taken leaves the viewer much to chew on, but the narrative was too slight to get at deeper issues only hinted at. The only time the cinema verite mood is changed, comes at the end when the giddy Kelly writes Louise a jerky teenager type of letter and the camera speeds things up in a surreal manner. The viewer can see how childishly hopeful and naive Kelly really was just 10 months before. This makes her demise even more of a crushing blow, as we realize things would have been different if she had parents who could listen.