Artist Del Kathryn Barton turns her hand to directing with excellent results, elevated by a truly remarkable child performance
As cathartic as it can be to see displayed on screen, trauma is a tricky thing for movies to handle. Its reality is messy and convoluted, unsuited to the linear demands of a conventional cinematic story. Blaze, the debut film from Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton, understands this problem all too well and makes its home in this difficulty, avoiding easy emotional payoffs for a more honest story about how some traumas aren’t “overcome,” but stay with you, forcing you to change into another person simply to survive. It’s a bleak and sad piece, with almost no levity whatsoever, but it finds a complex and bruising power in the journey and imagination of its young heroine.
This protagonist is Blaze (Julia Savage), a 12 year old girl with an artistic drive and a lot of imaginary friends who, on her way home from school, witnesses a horrifying rape and murder. Barton plays this scene out in brutal, sickening real time until the images are burned into our brains as much as they are Blaze’s, and the immediate aftermath, of DNA tests and horrific court appearances, simply pushes Blaze further into the darkness, leaving her well-meaning single dad Luke (Simon Baker) absolutely helpless.
There are few comforts in Blaze’s world as her behaviour grows ever more self-destructive, isolating herself and sometimes breaking out into fits of self-harming rage, but there is a retreat in her imagination. These fantastical sequences are where Barton’s background as an artist is most clearly felt, with stop-motion interludes and strange creatures made of stitched together bits of felt (the star of the show being Blaze’s dragon, a constant and enormous companion throughout the film). There are a few moments where the hyper-stylisation gets in the way of the emotions at play, and a couple of the more provocative scenes can feel a bit cheap but, for the most part, Blaze’s inner world is impressively well-realised.
Of course, much of this down to a truly remarkable performance from Savage. It’s a role that asks a hell of a lot for any actor, let alone a teenager making her first feature film appearance, but she conjures an intensity and sadness that is magnetic. It’s an immense achievement from both her and Barton; to coax a child performance like this in your first time in a director’s chair is quite a feat. You feel a genuine sympatico between star and director in Blaze’s best moments, and in the moments of greatest triumph Savage is even styled to look as much like Barton as possible.
As the PTSD story transitions into more of a coming-of-age tale, it can be a bit messy, but that partly feels like the point. Blaze is undergoing her trauma at perhaps the least convenient time possible in her life, the mental and physical changes of entering teenagehood complicating and exacerbating her unresolved fear and rage and the fact that witnessing a savagely violent rape has, essentially, served as her introduction to sex. It’s in this final point that Barton draws out a wider message about the cycles of sexual violence in Australia and the cumulative anger that it inevitably builds, be it consciously or not, amongst the nation’s women. It’s not always delivered flawlessly, but it does make for an irresistible primal scream of a debut.
Blaze was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch