hristine Jeffs’ debut feature, Rain, is the kind of coming-of-age drama where suburban torpor gets surprised in a dark alley and strangled by tragedy. Based on Kirsty Gunn’s novel, it’s the story of Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, a ballsier, more disturbed Anna Paquin), a twelve-year-old who’s spending the summer at an oceanside cottage with her adulterous, alcoholic mother, her cuckolded, alcoholic father, and a younger brother who’s not alcoholic as of yet, but you can see it coming. When not watching her parents’ marriage disintegrate, Janey must endure her own sexual awakening. The film is beautiful, shot in descending tones of brown, which makes its characters look like bees in amber and the New Zealand setting like The Ice Storm on defrost.
You started out directing TV commercials. Were any of them particularly sexy or morally ambiguous?
[Laughs] A lot of them were public-service, actually. Anti-drunk-driving, insurance companies, that sort of thing. They were message-driven, some of them were quite image-driven, and they required little drama scripts and testimonials and things like that from real people. A combination of image and story.
How easy is it to get a small, quiet film like this made in New Zealand?
It’s really pretty tricky. It took us a lot of time to get the funding. We have the New Zealand film commission, which is a government-funded board, people aren’t necessarily from the film industry, that is appointed to make decisions about which features get made. Every year we may make a few feature films, and I was just one of those films that was made.
This film is very slow, and I mean that as a compliment.
There’s not a lot of action in the traditional sense. It’s about the details of everyday life, and I think for that to have an impact on an audience, you need to give the audience a chance to look around a bit. So details have a cumulative significance. The actual performances are not of what’s said but what’s unsaid. So you need time to show that other than just cutting off a line of dialogue.
It’s gorgeously shot. Why the color choice?
One reason was the era, the ’70s; those colors were big then. Also, when you don’t have a lot of money to play with, it’s important to keep things simple. So we tried to keep some colors out of the palette no strong yellows or reds and those were the ones that were left. John Tune, our cinematographer, used particular filters, and one of his favorites was called Antique Suede. I quite like the name of it, it sounds like it’s from the ’70s.
The most notable thing about the film, I think, is its treatment of mother/daughter sexuality, that parallel. Why was this interesting to you?
There are other mother/daughter films around, but I hadn’t seen one that resonated in that way for me I’m thinking of things like Anywhere but Here and Tumbleweed. This one had a very strong sense of the mother moving on in her life. They’re just completely different places the girl is blossoming, and the mother is decaying and there’s a very strong sense of their self-worth and their sense of being in control over their lives.
I thought the mother was almost the most likable character in the film. She clearly wasn’t intended to be.
On the page, she wasn’t. A lot of that is in the casting. She’s a selfish character, really, as written, and I think one of the great things was that Sarah Peirce, who plays the mother, was able to create a real empathy.
She might seem like a selfish character, but when you see the isolation and pain that she feels and how she’s trying to break away from that, you can understand where she’s coming from. And obviously she really loves her children, but she doesn’t really have a relationship with them.
The father is less sympathetic than the mother I hate to admit just because of the way he looks.
He’s foggy, isn’t he? And he bumbles along drunk most of the time. There’s a real Kiwi thing about the way he is, I think. Which is that Kiwi men don’t articulate how they’re feeling very well.
That’s an American thing too.
Oh! Oh good! In New Zealand, people really related to the character, because he never goes, what’s wrong with you, woman? He doesn’t confront the situation. He just kind of drinks himself into oblivion. A lot of people see it as the typical Kiwi thing, just pretend it’s not going on and wait for the war to be over. But none of the adult characters really engage with each other, and I think that’s kind of the point.
Fat Girl was a similar coming-of-age story, but it was filled with shock value and explicit sex. You could have shown explicit sex at several points and gotten away with it, but you didn’t.
It was really important not to pretend the film was more than it was, if you know what I mean. In terms of the audience engaging with it, it relied on a kind of truthfulness, the building of these little moments and details. So I think to make more of the sex in those particular moments would have defied the kind of the point of the whole movie.
I think that I wanted to keep things especially real, in terms of what Janey’s going through. Even though she makes strange choices, and her actions are out-of-kilter from what you’d expect from a normal teenage girl, you know where she’s coming from.
Janey seems to be a budding sexual predator. She reminds me of Christina Ricci’s character in The Ice Storm the way she puts the boy on the floor and commands him to kiss her. But did you think her aggression is realistic?
I think she feels quite alone, and it’s an attempt for her to control her life and try to engage in the world emotionally in a way that she feels safe. I mean, you can definitely see that she’s testing the boundary of sex. But I think a lot of that is a like mother, like daughter kind of thing.
I have to confess that the ending irked me. It felt judgmental. It seemed to imply that because these women have dared to explore their sexuality, the family has to be punished.
I thought about it a lot. That’s the way it was in the book, and I thought about separating the two experiences, the sex and the death. Then, I thought the collision of these moments was a great impact. It’s not intended to be a judgment. The message is definitely not that sex equals death. You have to look at the film in terms of everything that’s gone on before. These things happen. If you’re not really focusing on the things that are precious, they can slip away from you.
Rain opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 26.
For the film’s official website, click here.
For Christine Jeffs’ website, click here.
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