Every city has one: an area littered with the usual eateries, convenience stores and variety shops, with a slightly grimy, ripped-from-the-'70s pawnbrokers nestled smack bang in the middle. In Melbourne, the suburb of Footscray offers up just that — and provides Pawno with its setting. Indeed, actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Ireland doesn't just stroll the streets to make his directorial debut, but endeavours to bring the thriving locale to the big screen. A diverse Aussie drama is the end result, offering a lived-in slice of neighbourhood life, its ups and downs, and its multicultural populace.
Unsurprisingly, the titular cash-for-goods establishment sits at the centre of the action. Run by the gruff but kindly Les Underwood (John Brumpton) and his lovesick offsider Danny (Damian Hill), it's the kind of place that all of the locals drop by during the course of the day. Over a 24-hour period, a number of shoppers, pals and others stop in or loiter around outside. Some, like transgender woman Paige (Daniel Frederiksen), are after quick cash. Others, such as visibly upset mother Jennifer (Kerry Armstrong), are trying to track down both goods and people. And then there's Kate (Maeve Dermody), who works in the nearby bookshop, needs help fixing her glasses, and happens to be the secret object of Danny's affection.
In addition to playing Danny, Hill also provides the low-budget indie with its screenplay. Despite this, his character is just one of many. Pawno proves less concerned with charting one person's journey, and more interested in weaving snippets of stories into a textured tapestry of the community. Alas, that choice proves both a strength and a weakness. While the unassuming feature boasts variety and vibrancy, its episodic narrative lacks a sense of cohesion.
Fortunately, the talented ensemble of performers — which includes Malcolm Kennard and Mark Coles Smith as a duo of homeless hangabouts, as well as Holding the Man's Tony Rickards as one of Les' pals — keep things intriguing, especially when the script goes down many an expected path. They might all be playing thinly written characters, but they each make their respective roles feel real. Thanks to their combined efforts, the ample amounts of Aussie slang and swearing aren't the only aspects of Pawno that come across as genuine.
As clichéd as it sounds, the suburb of Footscray also helps ramp up Pawno's atmosphere of authenticity. The graffiti-strewn streets are as significant a presence as Les, Danny and company, with cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe finding the right balance between gloss and grit. Of course, that's the combination the feature aims for overall: candid but caring. It's an ambitious mix for an ambitious feature, even if the patchwork package doesn't always convincingly come together.