There’s such a strong sense of the natural world in Aaron Wilson’s filmmaking, both the Australian bush around the Murray River near Tocumwal in his latest film, Little Tornadoes, and the dense, lush green jungle of Singapore in his previous first feature, Canopy (2014). It provides a sobering backdrop against which the human stories play out; whether it’s surviving the deadly pursuit by an enemy in World War II (Canopy), or surviving the loss, heartbreak and abandonment of being left by your wife and finding yourself sole parent to two small children (Little Tornadoes) – in both cases, the urgency and impact of the human stories are given scale by Stefan Duscio’s beautiful, evocative cinematography – as important as these events seem (and are) to the characters in the stories, the natural world is more or less oblivious to trials and tribulations of we humans scrabbling around on the planet’s surface. It’s an interesting context in which to explore these stories of men dealing with the after-effects of trauma and the crippling effects of the male’s all too common inability to talk about painful, personal and emotionally debilitating issues.
It's hard to talk about Little Tornadoes without talking about Canopy. Wilson has said that these two very personal films form two parts of a trilogy exploring the impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, interestingly they were both shot back to back in 2013 but the post production on Little Tornadoes has taken almost ten years. The two films are inextricably linked. Canopy ends with the downed fighter pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden) being thrown into a truck by his captors and driven down a Singapore road which match-cuts to a shot of a different truck driving down a dusty Australian road and a view of an older man, presumably an older Jim (Robert Menzies) standing in a wheat field. Little Tornadoes begins with a similar shot of a car driving down the same dusty Australian road. This time, though, it’s Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) who we will soon discover is Jim’s son. 1942 has become 1971 and both father and son are struggling to come to terms with the emotional impacts on their lives – for Jim it’s the embedded trauma of the war he’s grappled with for thirty years; for Leo the trauma is fresh, sparked by a wife who, unable to bear her life in a small country town with her taciturn husband, has hopped a train to Melbourne.
For much of the first part of the film, it’s Leo’s story we’re focused on – how he deals with suddenly becoming a sole parent to Maudey (Minnie Liszukiewicz) and her younger brother (both on and off screen) Jack (Freddy Liszukiewicz); how he deals with a seemingly total lack of domestic skills, how he deals with the fact that his departed wife won’t even speak to him or her children on the phone, and how he deals with the entrenched racism in his workplace, aimed at Tony (Fabio Motta) who, it seems, is his only friend and support. It’s Tony who puts Leo onto his sister, Maria (Silvia Colloca) with the recommendation that she cooks really well. And she does! Bringing Maria into the house to help with meals and the children is the first step towards Leo accepting the change that has taken place in his life, and to opening up his family to new possibilities. Around this time, though, Jim’s story insinuates itself into the narrative and we see more clearly the generational inability and paralysis of these two stoic, isolated, uncommunicative men who gird themselves against dealing with the changes that have come into their respective lives.
It's in Jim’s story that the connections back to Canopy resonate so strongly. His home is the home we caught in glimpses during that first film and memories of his traumatic flight through the jungle are imposed into present day (70’s) scenes either through a literal flashback to a scene from that film or, much more effectively, through echoed images from the one that bleed themselves like ghosts into the other.
There’s an element of flashback in the Leo story as well, though this comes in the form of poetic voice over narration spoken by Maria and looking back on the tale that’s unfolding. In Canopy, Wilson took sole writing credit but here he shares that with novelist Christos Tsiolkas and, whilst the words are often beautiful, there are timeswhen the disembodied voice overstays its welcome.
Little Tornadoes is not an easy film. It’s slow pace and repetitive storytelling challenges you to enter this world on its own terms, and allow yourself to become immersed in the silences, the stillness, the repetition and the internalisation that characterises both Leo’s and Jim’s stories. For those that embrace these demands, the rewards are rich. For the less willing, I can imagine that the film will often frustrate. In either case, though, the sharply drawn and deeply authentic performances shine through as does Tim Burgin’s beautifully rendered and evocative 70’s period production design, Robert Mackenzie’s score and, as already mentioned, Stefan Duscio’s photography. I’d also highly recommend sticking around through the credits to hear Sal Kimber and Simon Lewis’ haunting title song.
For the most part, Little Tornadoes is a compelling and skilfully made film that sometimes over-eggs its pudding in the telling of its tale. In some cases (most notably the rapid wrap up of the narrative at the end) it relies too heavily on the narration but when it doesn’t, Wilson’s craft as a filmmaker becomes clear and the visual power of the film speaks louder than any words. As a second part of a trilogy, I must say I was glad that I had rewatched Canopy before seeing Little Tornadoes; the resonances between the two films were so much more powerful, I suspect, then if I’d relied on my memory from nearly a decade ago. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that rather than the second in a trilogy, this film is more like the second half of the Canopy story. Wilson’s desire to explore the impacts of PTSD through these stories seems less apparent in Canopy than it does in Little Tornadoes, but the latter needs the former in order to make sense. Given the relatively short running times of both these films, I found myself wondering whether these two pretty good films might one day merge into an even more powerful and truly great film.
Little Tornadoes is in select cinemas from May 12, 2022.