Awkward, introverted Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) is on the cusp of turning fifteen yet cannot bear to leave her cosy, comfortable childhood behind for the incomprehensible, scary reality of adolescence. A high school misfit, her only friend is the equally goofy Elliot (Harrison Feldman) while she unwittingly makes enemies among a mean girl clique run by queen bitch Jade (Maiah Stewardson). The situation worsens when Greta's well-meaning but clueless parents Janet (Amber McMahon) and Conrad (Matthew Whittet) decide to throw her a birthday party and invite all her 'friends' from school. Sure enough the party goes awry leaving Greta humiliated and mortified. Yet when Greta flees the scene she is flung into a surreal fantasy realm where strange creatures help her confront her fears.
This self-consciously quirky Australian coming-of-age comedy fable will either delight or infuriate viewers depending on their own personal sensibilities. For the record this writer falls into the former camp but can sympathize with the frustrations of the latter. Adapted for the screen by Matthew Whittet, based on his own stage-play performed to great acclaim by the Windmill Theatre, Girl Asleep opens in the style of early Wes Anderson or such eccentric high school character studies as Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Spork (2010) with a similar mix of arch, stylized quasi-storybook visuals and deadpan humor. However once the film takes a leap into dreamlike flights of fancy its bold surrealistic imagination pitches closer to an adolescent Amelie (2001) where the retro-setting proves ambiguous (but seems to be the Seventies), photographs magically come to life, fantastical puppet creatures populate a storybook forest and the heroine confronts her literal inner child.
Like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Greta's imaginary world is populated by fantastical counterparts of real-life family members, friends and enemies. Self-involved mum is re-imagined as a literal Ice Queen straight out an old Russian fairy tale movie, cloying, over-protective dad becomes a sinister muck monster while teen bullies emerge as ravenous wild beasts ready to tear Greta apart. She does find an ally in the form of the Huldra (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a badass teenage Eskimo warrior-girl who may or may not be an analogue of Greta's alternately snarky but caring older sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer). Whittet's story also invokes Alice in Wonderland or rather the unjustly maligned Tim Burton adaptation scripted by Linda Woolverton. As in that film here a social misfit withdraws into her own imagination where her fantasies prove helpful, cathartic and empowering when it comes to dealing with a hostile, confounding reality. Rosemary Myers' creative direction employs dreamlike staging, lighting and stop-frame trickery to create some inspired sequences (including a delightful disco dance sequence set to Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)") but these are rooted in a nuanced script. Whittet's writing exhibits great empathy and understanding for the trials of adolescence, encompassing peer pressure, insecurity, sexual and social anxiety, along with a solid grasp of the intricacies of inter-familial relationships. Greta's alternately strained, antagonistic yet loving relationship with her older sister ranks among the most realistic depicted in film.
As one might expect Greta's fantastical adventure forces her to confront her psychological issues, grow more considerate of other people's feelings and ultimately become a stronger person, better equipped to deal with the emotional minefield of high school and teenage life. Though Girl Asleep does not break any new ground it is engaging, moving, warmhearted and funny.