Movies about being a teenager have come a long way since I was a teen. (Let’s not talk about exactly how long it’s been.) The last few decades of teen storytelling have their charms, from John Hughes to 10 Things I Hate About You, but many teen movies have looked outward in a way that doesn’t always feel true to adolescent life, when the mess of things going on inside is as distracting, or maybe all-consuming, as school and friends and mean girls and attraction.
Girl Asleep, a whimsical, beautiful Australian film, manages to fit all those concerns — social hierarchy, vicious teasing, the landscape of a creative young mind — into just 77 minutes. Fourteen-year-old Greta (Bethany Whitmore), quiet and wide-eyed, is new at school. Gawky, talkative Elliott (Harrison Feldman) makes a friendship offering of a pink-frosted doughnut; a trio of girls — who have gone out of their way to match even more than their uniforms demand — offer a more suspect, but clearly important, sort of association.
Greta isn’t entirely sure she’s interested. An introvert with a defiant streak, she’s comfortable in the small kingdom of her room, showing Elliott letters from her pen pal in Finland or the music box that inspired her childhood imaginary world. Her mother nudges her into sociability; her father (played by screenwriter Matthew Whittet) makes dad jokes, which Greta calmly rates at the dinner table. Her older sister slinks in and out, distracted by her clearly older boyfriend. Everything is fine — until Greta’s mother decides she needs to throw Greta a 15th birthday party.
It’s a mark of the surreal bent of Girl Asleep that the invitations indicate the party is on Feb. 31. Whittet — on whose play the film is based — and director Rosemary Myers aren’t presenting a realistic teenage experience, but a stylized version of a young girl’s interior life, rich and lush and full of contradictions. (Myers and Whittet collaborated on Girl Asleep’s theatrical production and clearly know their material inside and out.) Seventies browns run rampant in Greta’s home, while her school uniform is an eye-popping red and yellow. Teens behave in ways that seem bizarre but make their own perfect sense: Watch behind Greta and Elliot in the first scene, as their schoolmates wander in and out of frame, juggling, listlessly jumping, chasing a mascot.
But things don’t get truly strange until Greta falls asleep at her party, dropping into a dream that pulls in everything in her life: her music box, her family, her Finnish pen pal’s letters. It’s a little bit Labyrinth and a little bit Wes Anderson, though Myers’ attention to detail is more about color and feel than Anderson’s meticulously designed sets. Greta’s dream journey is illogical and odd, but also understandable and vital: Thrown into the discomfort of her birthday party, she finds a way to reclaim her life as her own. Though it’s made of some heavy stuff — the press materials name-check Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the psychology of fairytales — Girl Asleep is a buoyant, intimate, important triumph. (Opens Friday, Oct. 7, at Broadway Metro)