Superhero films are a prized commodity in the Hollywood studio system, garnering the big budgets and even bigger payoffs. While the comic-based adaptations were already heavily diluting the market, it wasn’t until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins that the “niche market” exploded and they became a regular occurrence. Curiously, Australian cinema has lagged behind world cinema in terms of superhero films: Griff the Invisible is – I believe – Australia’s first in over two decades. Some have mentioned the surface level comparisons to Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass but Griff the Invisible has much more in common with Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie.
The story follows socially-awkward Griff (Ryan Kwanten): an office worker by day, superhero by night to save his inner Sydney suburb from evil. After a number of previous incidents, his brother Tim (Patrick Brammal) has moved from South Australia to watch over him. Tim meets and falls for a quirky girl named Melody (Maeve Dermody) but it is lonely Griff that she is attracted to. Melody begins spending more and more time with Griff as they attempt to create an outfit that can make him invisible, with some unexpected results.
Superhero stories are always underlined by the question of identity both internally and externally. It is a concept that has worked better in comics than on screen but Griff the Invisible manages to perfectly encapsulate the struggle of a hero to answer who they truly are. Griff’s outwardly odd shyness gives his workmates – particularly Tony (Toby Schmitz) – ample fodder for bullying but his inward self belief allows him to pursue anything he wants. Yet Dermody’s Melody is also struggling with an identity crisis, mainly with her place in our world; her idiosyncrasies, off-beat humour and general inquisitive nature are so far removed from those surrounding her that she becomes an experimentalist.
The film surges forward when Griff crashes into Melody’s bubble and they begin removing that uncertainty in each of their lives. Their charming relationship created out of imagination and the fantastical is the core of the film. Much of their interaction in its second half treads similar lines to The Science of Sleep but is thankfully firmly defined and not frustratingly adolescent like Gondry’s film. Where others question Griff’s mental stability, Melody sees someone who wishes to search beyond what our eyes can see.
The love story works because of beautiful performances by both Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody. Kwanten is a completely different person in this role, exemplifying his versatility. He never overplays his flaws and conveys such depth and resonance that it is impossible not to like his character; he never places a foot wrong. Nevertheless, it is Dermody’s Melody which will be remembered at the end of the year – she is sublime. Her ability to quickly move from dramatic to comedic to plain slapstick is wonderful to watch and there is something intangibly fascinating about the way she speaks her lines with such dry-yet-delicate delivery.
Leon Ford is strong and eccentric in his debut feature film as writer and director. His compositions are engaging and well-though with a number of delightful and cheeky visual moments – the film’s title shot is particularly inspired. Ford’s writing pays tribute to the superhero but weaves in a fresh take on the niche subject, refusing to fold to audience expectations. The languid pacing and lack of expository dialogue about the leads’ pasts will frustrate many in the public but it is refreshing to see a film that decides not to give the viewer everything.
Griff the Invisible is an original and charming Australian film that focuses on the beautifully-performed central relationship of two odd souls finding some form of happiness. Ford’s directorial debut demonstrates filmmaking talent that won’t go unnoticed. Even if its characters are complete oddities, there is something genuine about this film. Griff the Invisible is the first great Australian film of the year.