He Ain’t Heavy is the Must See Australian Film of the Year

How do you break the back of a crisis? If you’re writer/director David Vincent Smith (DVS) you shine a spotlight on the humanity that persists through the darkest days. In his feature debut He Ain’t Heavy, a story of a sister who kidnaps her violent drug-addicted brother and locks him away in a last-effort attempt to force a state of sobriety onto him, DVS holds up an all-too-familiar tragedy and seeks to navigate a path out of the mess our society is in.

He Ain’t Heavy opens at night in suburbia. Leila George’s Jade quietly parks her car and slinks out of it, moving in the shadows towards the sound of a fist bashing against a door and a tortured man yelling at the top of his lungs. A neighbour comments to Jade that she has to do something about this or else she will. Jade manages to make her way inside the house without disrupting the figure, finding her mother Bev (Greta Scacchi) locked in her kitchen, once a vessel for nourishment and support, now a fortress with locks on the door and a roaring TV to smother the unceasing abuse from the man outside.

Through a broken window he makes his way indoors, and it’s then that we properly meet Max (Sam Corlett), the broken brother and son who screams for ten bucks. Jade and Bev don’t relent, denying him his request, leading Max steal his mother’s car. He doesn’t get far before crashing it into a tree and fleeing on foot.

As far as openings go, He Ain’t Heavy throws you into a disturbed suburbia and immediately forces you to question what you would do in this situation. Max is family, a fact that both Jade and Bev hold onto tightly as the importance of that status gradually diminishes in his mind. For them, the tender moments they shared as a family where they sang songs together or went on road trips play out like vivid memories which they hold onto as a buoy that acts as a reminder of who Max can be. For him, those memories have faded and all he sees in Jade and Bev is just another person to take money from and feed his habit.

Jade is at breaking point. Her friends have had kids, become scientists who travel the world, or have long term relationships to lean on; she’s nearly thirty and her life has dissipated before her eyes with nothing to show for it other than an exhaustive race across Perth to clean up yet another mess that Max has left in his wake. Rehab failed, pushing him back on the street, while the seven hour wait times in hospital emergency for mental health support did nothing to alleviate the encroaching claustrophobia of a panic attack. The matchstick supports that are in place to help those in need splinter under the smallest amount of pressure, leading Jade to sedate Max and sequester him in their late grandmother’s home, forcing a seven-day cleanse on him.

While Neil Armfield’s Candy or Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth each present an addict’s life in a compelling manner, there is an air of attention-seeking that comes with the central performances; as good as Heath Ledger and Toby Wallace are, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these are two actors performing as addicts. He Ain’t Heavy pulls away from its cinematic siblings with two central performances that are always grounded.

Leila George’s Jade is a weathered soul struggling to maintain a level of self-care – the tips of her unkempt hair are tinged with faded pink; the dye run out long ago – while also trying to support the rest of her family. Jade is adrift in the world, and in the frequent moments of solitude that she gifts herself (a visit to a local swimming hole becomes a sanctuary amidst the chaos) we get a glimpse into the emotional burden she’s carrying and processing. She’s the kind of person who a distant friend might look at and buy a copy of How to Keep House While Drowning as a way of solving the problem, when really all she needs is someone to simply understand the pain she’s living through.

After an impressive supporting role in The Dry, Sam Corlett gives Max a level of empathy and lived-in understanding that makes him more than just an ‘addict’. For Corlett, Max is a sibling and a son first, a person who had dreams and desires before the grip of drugs took hold. For actors, the role of an addict carries an air of excitement about it; after all, here’s a character who promises them a chance to present a range of conflicted emotions and show just how good they are as an actor. That level of ego never appears here, with Corlett echoing early Heath Ledger at times. Like Heath, Corlett acts selflessly, giving himself completely to a narrative that asks a lot of its leads.

Then there’s Greta Scacchi’s Bev, a single mother who has tried all she can and is now at a loss as to how to solve her own personal crisis. She is what Jade will become, alone, friendless, and scorned by a society that demands that she solve a problem she simply does not have the spoons to deal with. Without saying it, Bev only sees Max as her young boy; the sweaty figure he’s turned into is a visage she simply cannot comprehend. A late moment of tenderness between Bev and Max where she bathes her sleeping boy, wiping the grime off his brow, reinforces that ever-searching spotlight of humanity that sits at the core of DVS’ work.

As a storyteller, DVS draws from the personal, crawling into his memories and wrapping his arms around those uncomfortable and painful experiences in a supportive and empathetic way. He honours the tragedy, acknowledging its weight and significance, while also reminding viewers of the continuing value of compassion and empathy.

He Ain’t Heavy bleeds with raw emotion. As a creative force, David Vincent Smith has shades of Ken Loach, exploring the social issues of our time and the families who are impacted by them with an uncritical lens. DVS has created a film that’s deeply humanistic and delves into the need for empathy and understanding. Australian cinema has often returned to this well, but it has never been presented with such a deep level of understanding of a crisis at work. This phenomenal filmmaking and is one of the great debuts in recent Australian film history.

Director: David Vincent Smith

Cast: Leila George, Sam Corlett, Greta Scacchi

Writer: David Vincent Smith

Producer: Jess Parker

Cinematography: Lewis Potts

Editing: Antony Webb

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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