Australia's Beautiful: An Awkward Teen Suspense

Directed by: Dean O'Flaherty, Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: C-

Beautiful, an Australian import from first-time director Dean O'Flaherty, has an identity crisis. It desperately wants to swirl together an unsettling neighborhood fear, the ocular focus on suspense similar to Disturbia, the socially awkward growth of American Beauty's lead character and the rooted fierceness of Lantana, all within arty photography that works to push it beyond its influences into an expressive mix-tape of a feature. Within this tale of neighborhood hearsay and disappearing girls, it instead exists as a dull, been-there-done-that suspense weighted down by middling performances -- aside from one from Peta Wilson that, regrettably, has very little bearing on the film's core purposes.

After explaining that someone in the idyllic suburb of Sunshine Hills has been kidnapping young girls, Beautiful begins with a 14 -- but, nearly 15! -- year-old named Danny (Sebastian Gregory) who's caught with his Nikon shooting the neighbor's daughter Suzy (Tahyna Tozzi), a slinky girl-next-door with a love for INXS and bad boys, "sunbathing" in torrential rainfall. He's infatuated with her, clearly, yet his interest in the opposite sex halts there, building him into the type of introvert who artistically photographs dead animals and gargoyles and limply throws a basketball to a pack of his playing classmates. When Suzy's latest male conquest storms away, leaving her bored, she lures her "peeping Tom" Danny into her house and orchestrates a deal: the more Danny learns about the woman in dark "House 46" down the street, rumored be a hiding place for the suburban kidnapper, the more he gets to enjoy Suzy's, uh, assets.

As soon as Danny actually talks to Suzy for a prolonged period of time on her family's couch, the problems in Beautiful instantly flare up. Director O'Flaherty paints this misguided boy into someone we're supposed to empathize with, feel badly for his social discomfort and melancholy temperament, yet that stops once we see how far away from common sense the boy strays just to breathe the same air as his devious infatuation. He's willing to trespass, photograph strangers in their homes (many of them nude), and gather secrets about the gears churning under the town's hood, all without so much of a kiss to justify it for quite a while -- and he just follows her beck and call, hinged on his distorted anti-social attitude that supposedly eliminates his chances of meeting other girls. Perhaps it's because actress Tahyna Tozzi offers a far-fetched tantalizer in Suzy, crossing her legs, biting her nails, and shooting undress-me eyes at Danny in a fashion that makes Elisha Cuthbert's porn star magnetism from The Girl Next Door look Oscar-worthy.

Suzy's questionability as the film's cornerstone cripples the momentum fueling Beautiful, as it collapses a potentially bright Danny -- performed well enough by wide-eyed Sebastian Gregory -- into little more than a dim-witted, hypnotized hornball. Whether it's intentional because of his murky status as a social pariah doesn't matter; he makes for an unappealing, ignorant hero, which bodes poorly for O'Flaherty's film considering it relies more on dramatic potency than its trifling suspense. Still, we're offered a sense of intrigue in the thinly-dressed woman peeking out the window in House 46, about whether she's a victim of the town's notorious killer/kidnapper or not, and it holds enough focus while Danny repeatedly tries to get his foot in the door for answers. You might be thinking, "Does it really matter whether we buy into Suzy's manipulation, if the mystery Danny's solving is decent?" Under different circumstances, maybe, but this story's finale deems otherwise.

There's another side of the coin here, a faintly stilted but compelling portrait of Danny's father Alan, a harsh police officer that's as socially screwed up as his son, and his girlfriend Sherrie (Peta Wilson), who's filled the maternal shoes in Danny's mother's absence for 14 years. The father's a gruff, troubled brute who adds less to the story than a paternal force like his should, yet Sherrie becomes the most tangibly compelling entity in the film. She copes with Alan's chilly ferocity -- obviously sparked by whatever removed Danny's mother from their lives -- with fluctuations of passion and browbeaten intensity, given life by Peta Wilson from the TV-version of "La Femme Nikita". As she fears abuse, sweats over pregnancy, and oddly mingles with Danny in a vaguely-Oedipal dynamic within a small cluster of scenes, Sherrie can be captivating; the problem lies in her presence existing almost completely out of reach of Danny's investigating, which makes Sherrie's place in the film detached and, as a result, incohesive until she's conveniently needed.

Ultimately, Beautiful amounts to an edgeless hodgepodge of already-familiar sources that succeeds in executing the things floating outside the central premise, yet fumbles miserably with the things that really matter. On more than one occasion, I found myself wishing that the film focused on Sherrie's difficulties, and that the whole mystery of the suburban killer and the temptress neighbor would vanish. As it barrels toward a conclusion, one that teases with a few risky little insinuations while exploding into a nervous, violent burst of anticlimactic murkiness, O'Flaherty still manages to invoke a minuscule amount of compassion for Danny as he ventures in and out of the lion's den. His journey of growth, though, from whatever you can scrape together among his pedantic flirtations with Suzy and his sleuthing, hardly regains any authenticity as the story mushrooms into a state that's beyond his young mindset.


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