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Making her first feature, Archibald Prize-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton directs a searing, soaring, empathetic and imaginative exploration of trauma.
By Sarah Ward
August 23, 2022
By Sarah Ward
August 23, 2022

In the name of its protagonist, and the pain and fury that threatens to parch her 12-year-old existence, Del Kathryn Barton's first feature scorches and sears. It burns in its own moniker, too, and in the blistering alarm it sounds against an appalling status quo: that experiencing, witnessing and living with the aftermath of violence against women is all too common, heartbreakingly so, including in Australia where one woman a week on average is killed by her current or former partner. Blaze has a perfect title, with the two-time Archibald Prize-winning artist behind it crafting a movie that's alight with anger, that flares with sorrow, and that's so astutely and empathetically observed, styled and acted that it chars. Indeed, it's frequently hard to pick which aspect of the film singes more: the story about surviving what should be unknown horrors for a girl who isn't even yet a teen, the wondrously tactile and immersive way in which Blaze brings its namesake's inner world to the screen, or the stunning performance by young actor Julia Savage (Mr Inbetween) in its central part.

Savage also has a fitting moniker, impeccably capturing how ferociously she takes on her starring role. Blaze, the Sydney schoolgirl that she plays, isn't always fierce. She's curious and imaginative, happy dwelling in her own dreamy universe long before she flees there after witnessing a rape and murder, and then frightened and fraying while also fuming. In how she's portrayed by Savage, and penned by Barton with co-screenwriter Huna Amweero (also a feature first-timer), she's intricately fleshed out, too, with every reaction she has to the assault proving instantly relatable — especially to anyone whose life has been touched by trauma. We don't all see dragons made out of fabric, felt, feathers, papier-mâché and glitter, helping us through times good and bad, but everyone can understand the feelings behind that dragon, which swelter like the creature's fiery breath.

Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, Blaze isn't — although Jake (Josh Lawson, Mortal Kombat), who Blaze spots in an alleyway with Hannah (Yael Stone, Blacklight), has his lawyer (Heather Mitchell, Bosch & Rockit) claim that his accuser knows nothing. With the attack occurring mere minutes into the movie, Barton dedicates the feature's bulk to how her lead character copes, or doesn't. Being questioned about what she saw in court is just one way that the world tries to reduce her to ashes, but the embers of her hurt and determination don't and won't die. Blaze's father Luke (Simon Baker, High Ground), a single parent, understandably worries about the impact of everything blasting his daughter's way. As she retreats then acts out, cycling between both and bobbing in-between, those fears are well-founded. Blaze is a coming-age-film — a robbing-of-innocence movie as well — but it's also a firm message that there's no easy or ideal response to something as awful as its titular figure observes.

The pivotal sequence, lensed by cinematographer Jeremy Rouse (The Turning) and spliced together by editor Dany Cooper (The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson) to be as jarring and unflinching for Blaze's audience as it is for Blaze, is nightmarish. Avoiding agony and anguish isn't Barton's way — and it can't be with this subject matter. While never as harrowing in the same manner again, Blaze is styled by its artist-turned-writer/director in the same expressive, impressionistic way from start to finish, so that watching its frames flicker feels like diving inside its lead character's heart and mind. That internal realm is a place where a pre-trial proceeding erupts into flames spat from Blaze herself, via a tiny white dragon figurine she places between her teeth. Unsurprisingly, that's a spectacular and gloriously cathartic sight. Barton isn't afraid of symbolism, but she's also allergic to emptiness; not a single image in her kaleidoscopic trip through her protagonist's imaginings is ever wasted.

As set to a soundtrack that's soulfully moody and brooding as only Nick Cave can be one minute, then psychedelic and soaring with The Flaming Lips a short time afterwards, the contents of Blaze's brain and soul is where cogs turn — not literally, not once, but in processing everything that the pre-teen has seen and felt. It's where she glimpses a corpse turned mesh and material, then spies a tiny girl climb a ladder out of its mouth, in one of the movie's many mixed-media moments. It's where tiny kissing ceramic animal figurines morph into something more, fleshy tongues waggling, and where putting her feet in a sandbox transports her to the beach. And, it's where thoughts and emotions can better be distilled through surreal stop-motion animation and puppetry, and via that towering pink-hued dragon that any child would want as their pal and confidant, and with hallucinogenic collages that everyone who has seen Barton's other art will immediately recognise as springing from her head. 

If Barton took on Where the Wild Things Are, Pete's Dragon or A Monster Calls, all of which deal with sadness and tragedy through fantasy as well, it'd look like this — well, as a starting point. As brilliant and deeply affecting as all three of those films are, Blaze is always bolder and darker. It's more enraged, audacious, unsettling and astounding. It stresses that hardship is what shapes us but not what solely makes us, but it's a gut-punch rather than a heartstring-tug of a feature (by design; facts and figures about femicide are purposefully worked in). Barton emphasises that surviving is both a battle and a feat, that coping through art is a balm, and that seeing and speaking are pivotal acts. In other hands, though, Blaze might've resembled another recent feature that plunged into distress, and a headphone-wearing adolescent feeling it, that's also helmed by a big-name Aussie debuting as a director after coming to fame in a different medium. Thankfully, however, similarities with Sia's Music end are superficial.

Big things deserve to await Savage, who never lets Blaze forget that it's about a living, breathing, hurting, loving person, and about the screaming, receding, dreaming, needing and steaming that characterises her response to such an ordeal. In support, Baker offers a sublimely judged mix of care, stress and uncertainty, playing a dad who knows he doesn't have all the answers, because no one can — and Stone, in her crucial and devastating part, is phenomenal. Big things have already come Barton's way in the art world, but they deserve to shower over her for this also, which comes after short films The Nightingale and the Rose and Red. Blaze is brutal and beautiful, blunt and labyrinthine, and a trip, a heartache, an escape and a release. When its namesake asks why she ends up temporarily institutionalised but Jake hasn't been, the movie makes one of its points as loudly as it can, but every inch of every frame already says everything.

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