Eugene (Peter Flaherty) is an introverted photographer who works and cares for his sick father out of a tiny flat. Although his pictures have attracted interest from magazines, their confronting subject matter—substance abuse, gang violence—has kept them from being published. This all changes following a chance encounter with Josephine (Sarah Timm), a young immigrant forced into prostitution by a shadowy criminal organisation. As Eugene puts it, his shots of Jo are the first glimpse of ‘something worth saving’ within the squalor he typically captures; unsurprisingly, they become his most successful work yet. In my opinion, the sheer number of subsequent plot developments feels contrived and distracts from this solid, Taxi Driver-esque foundation. For instance, the scenes with Eugene’s father bring the story to a halt and have no emotional impact on any character for the rest of the film.
CHOIR GIRL is at its best when it leans into noir conventions, which Flaherty’s commanding lead performance highlights. Much like the protagonists of classic detective novels, Eugene has been left cynical and exasperated after years of witnessing crime and poverty flourish around him. When the police fail to show up at the brothel where Josephine is being held captive, Flaherty perfectly conveys the lack of surprise tinging his disappointment. Meanwhile, I found him more than capable of carrying the wordless, suspenseful sequences scattered throughout the film’s first half. In true noir fashion, my favourite of these sees Eugene sneaking through dimly lit alleyways towards the brothel, narrowly— almost implausibly—avoiding discovery. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable creepy edge to this character that Flaherty doesn’t shy away from, inviting the audience to question whether Eugene has risen above his surroundings or sunk to their level, or, whether he treats Jo any better than her captors. I was unconvinced by the script’s efforts to frame this ambiguously (more on that below), but admired Flaherty’s transformation of frustration into callousness as time grew on.
Unfortunately, while the harsh subjects of Eugene’s photos are excused by other characters due to their authenticity, the film becomes increasingly unbelievable and makes it hard to stay engaged. The most glaring example of this is Eugene’s spiral into outright villainy, culminating in an abhorrent penultimate scene that is still ostensibly cast as an effort to ‘rescue’ Jo. To put it simply: an underage victim of abuse places her trust in a stranger who takes advantage of her for his own gain, only for the supporting cast to fail to call their dynamic out for what it is. Before you call me naïve, I think the biggest obstacle here is that Fraser doesn’t establish a clear setting or time period. As a result, the ‘Melbourne’ being shown neither looks nor feels like the city I know, apart from an establishing time lapse late in the second act. Even Eugene’s supposedly rough neighbourhood remains unnamed for the entire runtime. Likewise, the computers, phones and Eugene’s camera looked a few decades old to me. Ultimately, without any solid world-building I just don’t understand how Eugene and Jo’s fucked up pairing could escalate as Fraser depicts it. Maybe decades ago (not that it would make the behaviour acceptable), but not now.
CHOIR GIRL certainly bears enough resemblance to classic noir for genre lovers to get excited for. In fact, cinematographer Mark Kenfield is my personal MVP for his intriguing use of shadows, particularly early on as the plot unfolds and tension is at its highest. However, its unlikeable characters coupled with baffling story choices make it hard to imagine this film having wide appeal.