Debutante writer/director Richard Gray was the runner-up in the Australian version of the Project Greenlight competition, in which the winner received $1 million towards his film. However, since that disappointment, Gray has been able to secure funding to finally bring his vision to the screen. The result is Summer Coda, a beautiful and elegaic but disappointing romantic drama set against the gorgeous backdrop of Mildura. With its rich beauty, natural settings, and slow, measured pace Summer Coda resembles Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty.
Heidi (played by Rachael Taylor, from Transformers) is an expatriate musician who has been living in Nevada. She returns home to attend the funeral of her estranged father, seeking closure for her painful past. For some reason, Heidi seems underprepared for her journey, and ends up having to hitchhike most of the way. She is given a ride by Michael (Alex Dimitriades), a man who has also suffered tragedy. Michael manages an orange grove outside Mildura, and Heidi is given temporary accommodation in his large but empty house during fruit picking season. Lots of languid evenings spent sitting around a table, drinking and talking follow, which enables Heidi to come to terms with her past and move on. And somehow both Heidi and Michael are inevitably drawn closer together by their mutual sense of loss and grief. The orange grove itself becomes something of an obvious metaphor for renewal, growth, and the continual cycle of life.
Summer Coda holds a deep personal connection for Gray and he establishes a suitably melancholy mood. But the languid pacing and beautiful visuals do not entirely distract from the flaws in the narrative and the lack of character development. Technically the film is ravishing. Cinematographer Greg de Marigny captures the natural beauty of Mildura’s orange groves and the spectacular Murray River, and Summer Coda has been gorgeously shot. Alie Sluiter’s evocative score also adds to the film’s winning qualities. However, the film is let down by its rather pedestrian script and under developed characters with who it is hard to really connect or sympathise.
Gray has managed to secure the talents of a solid cast. There are cameos from Suzie Porter, and Jackie Weaver (who is wasted in a thankless part). Taylor’s performance here lacks spark, and she underplays her character. Dimitriades struggles with his fairly bland and uninteresting character here. There is also no real chemistry between Dimitriades and Taylor. Nathan Phillips and Angus Sampson bring some comic relief to the material as two of the fruit pickers.
Summer Coda is yet another example of a low budget local production that is a deeply personal story for the director but may fail to capture the attention of a general audience.