Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to local actor, Vincent Donato for putting me in touch with Writer/Director, Nima Raoofi who hooked me up with a hard copy Blu Ray of his debut feature-length film, “Charlotte”. Charlotte is a Drama/Mystery that centers around Renee Darcy (played by first timer Ashleigh Chanel), a young mother whose trying to put the pieces of her life back together following a car crash. The film also stars David Daradan, Leia Burns, Vincent Donato, Gary Hartley and David John Clark. Since moving to Australia, Raoofi has made a number of short films and I’m pleased to finally been introduced to his work. In the three or four years I’ve been writing and reviewing, opportunities to see locally made films have been scarce to say the least. So much so that I can probably count the number of South Australian films I’ve reviewed on one hand.
I went into Charlotte knowing very little about the crux of it, I didn’t even feel the need to read the synopsis (sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, it’s just a mood thing). Nima’s script comes across as though it’s grounded in drama, with a strong sense of more than meets the eye when it comes to his characters. The thriller element employs cues from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho) and Brian De Palma (Carrie), particularly films like “Marnie” and “Raising Cain”. The film has a quick running time of just 69 minutes, and given the minimal locations and characters, the pacing works well. A majority of the camera work and framing looks good, there’s some interesting shots thrown in the mix as well. The inclusion of a nice aerial shot over the Darcy family home and a reverse shot looking out of a bin are just a couple of examples. My favourite shot pans up and over a kitchen bench top and it looked stellar. Those sorts of simple touches help add to the overall production value. The audio levels are clear and the foley is good, so to is some of the mood lighting. Most notably silhouetted light coming through the blinds/shutters in the bedroom, alike to Hitchcock’s more prominent films. Nima wore many hats on Charlotte (just about all of them in fact), and if he hadn’t told me how much he’d actually done on the film I’d have never known. The music was one of my favourite facets and it’s evident that Nima’s influences are widespread. It’s quite a bass heavy score initially, but there’s some wonderful ambient guitar and keyboard themes that go hand in hand with the drama in the middle part of the film. Later, it’s some Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion) like synth and unnerving violin strokes that drive the suspense forward in that final act.
When it comes to casting I think Chanel and the young child playing her daughter were really well cast and looked very similar. Daradan plays Ben, Renee’s husband whose trying to come to terms with the accident and its effects on the couple. Aside from some monotone delivery here and there (perhaps more the character than him) most of his performance was pretty solid. Burns and Donato’s characters, Nadia and Mike Gardner are more or less secondary players in the dueling story line within the film. The interactions felt real and they gave their all with limited screen time. Hartley’s character of Greg Miller could’ve been an interesting one had it been explored in greater detail, possibly through a flashback or two. On a personal note, it was nice to see David John Clark with a small but familiar role in here (having played a cop before I believe). The tone appears to be set early on when Renee arrives home. Her eyes look to the rolling clouds overhead as they darken and close in on the house, potentially foreshadowing whats to come. As tensions escalate you start to wonder how much truth there is in what Renee’s being fed by those around her. Could it just be her selective memory kicking in due to the after effects of the car accident? The door is even left ajar for parental raising issues, the concerns of postnatal depression, a number of different things arise. After all, Renee’s first words are something along the lines of “I’m just starting to love my daughter”. Even though I didn’t necessarily love the direction Raoofi ended up taking, I can respect him for keeping several avenues open right up to the films climax.
Charlotte opens with Renee’s car crash and unfortunately low-budget independent films usually don’t have the funds for quality digital effects, as is the case here. The car immediately stands out and so to does the movement and smoke post impact. The alternative here would’ve been to shoot the vehicle headed for the tree (up to a certain point) and fade to black before it reached it. You can then layer your foley effects of the cars smash in post and have it play over the fade out. Even start your intro credits as you fade back in to see the car against the tree, hood up, smoke pouring out (use a machine) or otherwise you don’t have to show it at all, either option might have been better. Nima’s edit is fairly tight but there’s a few abrupt transitions, most notably mid conversation between Mike and Nadia. There’s a quick cut back to Renee in her house, for what feels like a good ten minutes before things return to Mike and Nadia, yet their conversation picks right back up where it left off. That’s a technique that can work well when implemented correctly for dramatic purposes, but it felt unnecessary here and I wanted to see that sequence right the way through first. As I said earlier, the film is professionally shot but if I had a complaint it would be that I constantly felt at arm’s length with the emotional side of it. There’s a separation there to some extent, I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of close ups on faces or something different altogether.
I can’t really go into the finer points of the film for fear of spoilers, but let’s just say I had more than a few questions come the conclusion (minor spoilers ahead). Most of my reservations had to do with Greg and how he fit into the film’s world. It only further raised questions for me regarding the intricacies of the money side of things, then’s there’s Ben’s mention of “The three of us” during that conversation in the last act. It begs the question, Who’s the third person he’s referring to? I’d say Mike, but only because we’re made aware of his families circumstances, and if that is the case it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was hoping for a slightly straighter narrative, at least in its presentation. It’s never fun to single someone out in a negative way but I’ve got to give my honest assessment, I found Chanel’s performance uneven and difficult to engage with. I’m going to cut her some slack though because this is her first time in front of the camera in what was quite a difficult role to take on. At first I just thought the character was a little bit stiff and stubborn, couple that with the hazy memory and you could forgive her. It wasn’t until her interaction with the detective that I realized the delivery was rather wooden. More forced reactions continued through her scenes with the two police officers. The lack of emotional conviction by Chanel may have been highlighted by the fact that Renee wasn’t the most sympathetic character to begin with.
Charlotte is a well made debut feature-length film from local film maker, Nima Raoofi reminiscent of the Austrian film “Goodnight Mommy”. It’s smartly shot, it sounds great and the lighting and editing are both solid. It’s a got a diverse score utilizing synth, guitar, bass and violin, clearly inspired by the sounds of Hitchcock, Polanski and De Palma, I dug it. It’s great to see a couple of familiar faces in here, the supporting cast are all capable and each turned in competent performances. There’s a handful of small technical issues, namely the editing, which isn’t as tight as it could be, and I think the car crash could have been established differently (and more successfully). Nima might have inserted a few more close ups to help draw the viewer further in, that and the story asks you to take in a few things with no questions asked (I had questions). Unfortunately I found Chanel’s leading performance left a fair bit to be desired, though I’m sure she learnt a lot from the experience and will hopefully put it to good use in her next film. Charlotte was a completely self-funded, locally made independent film, so hats off to everyone involved and particularly Nima for trying his hand at each individual technical facet. Independent film making is a tough, and for the most part thankless task, so help these guys out and purchase a copy of the film. See the trailer below and check out the website!
My rating for “Charlotte” is 5.5/10