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This review contains discussions of domestic violence and sexual violence.
There’s a welcome familiarity to Tyson Wade Johnston’s feature debut film, Streamline. It drips with Australiana, positively drenched in Australian drama films that have come before it, while also steeped in the early morning legacies of thousands of youthful sportsfolks who yearn for athletic greatness. In an assured and confident manner, Johnston makes a timely statement within the enduring conversation about Australian masculinity, circling out the swimming scene for its permeating toxicity.
Here, we follow Benjamin Lane, played with a lived-in quality by Levi Miller, a fifteen year old Olympic swimming hopeful, pushed to his limits by the death-rattle of puberty, 3am training starts with a lead-heavy coach, and a fractured family relationship further strained by the re-emergence of his father from prison. With an all-too-familiar confluence of life events piling on top of each other, Ben has to navigate some kind of path to adulthood. His mother, Kim (the exceptional Laura Gordon), is equally exhausted by the weighted daily routine that Ben goes through, and while she eagerly supports his growth, the constant push that she has to muster takes its toll.
As the focal point of Streamline, Levi Miller delivers a performance that is a certified career defining moment for the already-exemplary actor. Across the past decade, Miller has stunned with lead performances in Red Dog: True Blue, Jasper Jones, and a solid supporting turn in A Wrinkle in Time, but it’s here, as Ben, that he is pointedly making the transition from being a youthful great into becoming one of the most impressive young adult stars in Australia. Miller’s Ben is brought into harsh reality with a proudly internal performance, where all the simmering rage, confliction, and whirling chaos of being a teen ripples under his tense and tired muscles day in, day out.
Miller’s informed acting is deftly elevated by a supporting cast that consistently works to empower a narrative that adds to the conversation regarding toxic masculinity that’s roiling in Australia right now. In almost a pointed casting move, Laura Gordon’s mother, Kim, feels like a masterful continuation of her stunning performance in Undertow, a film which tore apart the horrifying sexual violence that rages in the sports scene. Gordon is one of the great modern actresses working in Australia today, and her performance as Kim adds to the impressive catalogue of characters she has played.
Equally impressive is the always watchable Jason Isaacs as Ben’s absent, once-violent father, Rob. Isaacs presence is sparsely pattered throughout Streamline, but the impact of Rob’s violence against both Ben and Kim looms over every frame. We meet him as a weathered and broken man seeking to atone for the pain he inflicted upon his family, and later, as a shell of a human hidden in the washroom of a small restaurant. The toll of prison has clearly changed him, and Isaacs sorrow-filled performance leaves an enduring question in our minds: if prison and the act of losing one’s family needs to occur to change a violent man, then where does the break in the violent familial cycle come from?
Throughout Streamline, we witness the constant dehumanisation of Ben. In all aspects, he’s called ‘boy’, not Ben. He’s rarely seen as a solitary person, instead, he’s a tool, a muscle designed and crafted to do one thing: swim. In turn, Ben becomes almost mute, rarely speaking, as if he’s been beaten into submission routinely and afraid to exist as himself. A rare point of comfort comes from his girlfriend, Patti (Tasia Zalar), but even in that sanctuary-like relationship the pressure of training and success finds fertile ground. The question of whether Ben actually ever wants to become an Olympian, let alone be a swimmer, feels decidedly absent.
As the looming Olympic qualification trials hang over Ben’s head, with the ringing sound of his coach, Glenn (a domineering performance from Robert Morgan), saying ‘if you screw this up, then it’s a four year wait til the next trials’, carrying through his mind. That stress, and the reappearance of Rob, pushes Ben into boiling point territory, leading him into the brotherly home of his estranged siblings, Dave (Jake Ryan), and Nick (Sam Parsonson), both of whom have been moulded by Rob’s violence. In a masterful shorthand, we get an immediate understanding of what kind of brother Dave is, with his muscled shoulder emblazoned with a Southern Cross tattoo. Jake Ryan’s performance balances the tension of tenderness and terror expertly, highlighting how easy it is for violent father figures to be both endearing and traumatising at the same time.
Streamline shines a light into the shadow of abuse, with Sam Parsonson’s brilliant turn as Nick showing him as the brother that’s trapped by Dave’s exacerbated violence which turns him into a dual victim of domestic abuse. When Ben emerges in his life, Nick does what he can to try and eek him away from the path of turning into their father once again, like Dave has. Ben is just another young boy who was born a blank slate that his father sought to slather all of his parent-inflicted pain onto, even though they had promised to themselves that they’d be the ones to ‘break the cycle’. As each man maneuvers himself into Ben’s life circles, he’s pushed further and further to the devastating moment that lingers in the mind of this child of abuse, the one where he is left to ask his abusive father: ‘what did I do to you’?
The film tears apart the streaks of brutal men in society, exposing the lineage of noxious father figures who use abuse and cruelty to ‘raise’ their kids, or in the case of Glenn, ‘train’ them. Glenn pushes Ben to his limits, demanding that he break that one hundredth of a second gap between failure and success, even if it takes all night. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Glenn is less concerned with Ben’s wellbeing, and more about the prestige and accolades that he will receive as being the person who discovered Ben after his ‘golden boy’ success as the ‘next Ian Thorpe’.
Visually, Streamline is elevated by the reflective and evocative cinematography from the great Michael Latham. Arguably one of the modern masters of the screen, Latham’s camera continually highlights the thematic depths of the narrative he explores. Here, the piercing cold of a winter swim hangs over the film, permeating each frame with its muted blue and grey palette, only to be separated by the lung-consuming haze of the burnoff season. Latham evokes the feeling of pressure, anxiety, and the stress of being trapped, with a stunning awareness that will surely become a template for future cinematography hopefuls to learn from in the future. Equally supporting the film is the emotional score by Angela Little that soars and drops as the narrative demands it.
If there’s a complaint about Streamline, it comes with the conclusion that feels all too neat and comfortable given the dramatic heft that has come before it. At its core, Streamline is a sports film, and unfortunately it leans in on the trope of sports films: answering the question of winning or losing. The climax almost robs Ben’s emotional arc from its logical conclusion, instead leaning in on discovering whether he becomes an Olympian or not. A more confident conclusion would close on Ben’s emotional acceptance of the trauma he has lived with all his life, but the ending that exists does not rob Streamline of its brilliance.
Streamline is an impressive and towering achievement from Tyson Wade Johnston, one that will be earmarked as a turning point in Levi Miller’s enduring career, a possible pivot point that will likely guide him towards more mature performances. There’s a glimmer of Nicholas Hoult or Jamie Bell within Levi Miller, and given the legacy those two actors have crafted, one can only hope Miller can be afforded the career to do the same.
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