Button pushing social commentary comedies come in all shapes and sizes – The Castle with its Aussie lower class family of ‘Davids’ throwing punches at the governmental ‘Goliaths’, The Full Monty garnered a Best Picture nomination with its story about six unemployed blokes who turn to stripping to earn a buck with the help of Boney M, or Three Summerswhich looked at the societal make-up of Australia from the perspective of a hippy-run music festival. These are underdog tales that show folks with the world against them coming out on top, victorious and triumphant. The notion that laughter helps breed familiarity and understanding, and most importantly, empathy, is one that’s not lost in these films.
It’s a notion that carries through in director Mark Grentell’s (Backyard Ashes) country town football team focused flick, The Merger. The town of Bodgy Creek is in jeopardy – not only has its timber mill closed down putting many of the blokes out of work, but the footy team is in strife, with the threat of a merge with another shitty team on the table. Enter one time footy legend, now town killing outcast, Troy Carrington (The Merger‘s writer Damian Callinan taking lead actor duties), with an idea that might just work – take advantage of a grant that is given to regional towns who agree to provide a home for refugees, and in turn, use those refugees to boost the struggling footy team.
Way back when in 2009, Damian Callinan was commissioned by Regional Arts Victoria and Vic Health to write up a stage play that would help deal with the perpetual subject of racism in regional communities. In that play, he turned to the Asylum Seekers Refuge Centre for help in recruiting players. In the film version, a fictionalised version of the Human Settlement Program is used as an incentive to get towns to take on refugees, with the town being a financial beneficiary to the arrival of the refugees, rather than the town doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.
Which is a point that The Merger uses to subtly reinforce the idea that, hey, helping those in need may actually help you too. Yeah, sure, it may seem selfish that the town only wants to ‘help’ the refugees because there’s a financial windfall from the opportunity, but if this slightly fantastical view that towns in Australia are being paid to look afterrefugees can help get some viewers to empathise with refugees, then isn’t that a benefit?
This isn’t the only fantasy element within TheMerger, with one of the refugees making Bodgy Creek their home an asylum seeker who came from Nauru. Played by the absolutely brilliant Fayssal Bazzi (check out his brilliant comedic performance in Down Under), Sayyid is the main refugee of the group. Having arrived in Australia via Nauru from Syria, Sayyid appears in the town with a travelling library. Troy Carrington and his sidekick kid Neil Barlow (a pitch perfect Rafferty Grierson) stumble into Sayyid, who recognises Troy immediately thanks to his autobiography that he managed to read while in detention on Nauru.
Now, it’s not necessary that fictional films adhere to the truth all that much, but when the topic of asylum seekers is such a contentious one in Australia, it would be great if a film that is as genuinely entertaining and heartwarming as The Merger managed to adhere to some aspects of the truth. While the harsh reality of living in a detention centre is certainly given a fair dose of coverage here, the even harsher reality that people have died on Nauru and Manus Island under the ‘care’ of Australia, and that there are legitimate refugees who have been trapped in those prisons for five years, is washed over. Sure, this isn’t a subject that evokes a lot of laughter, but it is one that deserves exploration in lighter material like this.
This is not to say that the preconceived notions and stigmas surrounding refugees aren’t challenged – a comment about being an economic refugee helps show the fallacy for what it is. A subplot about two blokes that come together over their shared interest in chemistry is enjoyable, and one that doesn’t (fortunately) stray into the ‘he’s making a bomb’ trope that it feels like it very easily could. Another subplot shows a supremely ignorant teammate giving an African refugee a goat, because ‘apparently you blokes like these’, and then later exclaiming that he can’t find Aleppo on Trip Advisor.
If anything, the main complaint about The Merger is that it simply has a bit too much going on to actually give the core story the space to breath. While the refugees are brought to the town to help build new club room facilities, this never actually occurs. John Howard’s cantankerous old bloke, Bull Barlow, has a prostate problem which feels like simply exists to have a couple of ill advised ‘finger up the bum’ jokes inserted into the mix. A romantic subplot between Troy and Angie Barlow (a grounded Kate Mulvany) carries weight, but often feels equally overshadowed by everything else, while also doing its fair share of overshadowing. Some of the elements that help add character to the mix are genuinely random – a fixation with Shakespeare comes out of nowhere, a hippy ‘medic’ who appears waving sage everywhere at the end of matches, the teams ability to impersonate stunned goats – yet, it doesn’t really matter, as the core structure works.
Sure, it’s a structure that could have used a bit more polish. Damien Callinan’s script lacks the confidence to stray off the well trodden path of the underdog story – it’s a little too eager to get the footy team to the Grand Final, never having fully showing the road the team takes from ‘can’t catch a ball’ to all conquering team. Sure, we’re supposed to suspend disbelief with these kinds of stories, but that suspension only goes so far.
There are great performances across the board – almost too many to name, but notable shout outs go to Harry Tseng as Tou Pou, a refugee who can speak English well, but is a bit shaky on Australian, Josh McConville’s Snapper as a relatively meek guy who isn’t the best footballer, but knows his way around a chemistry set, and the always enjoyable Penny Cook as Fran Barlow, Bull’s ever suffering wife who embraces the injection of culture Bodgy Creek receives. And, Rafferty Grierson who helps carry the film as Neil Barlow, Angie’s son, who perpetually gives Troy Carrington the irrits with his well meaning nitpicking nature as he films him for a documentary he’s making (another subplot that exists just to exist, but is well worth it).
The Merger is full of heart and a vibrant energy that makes it an enjoyable time. It’s perfectly Australian in many ways – casual swearing has never been better portrayed than here. It’s great to hear Nauru, Aleppo, and Syria all mentioned in an Aussie comedy, it’s just a shame that the focus on the refugee characters is a little distracted by everything else going on. Maybe this is to allow an understandable anchor for Aussie audiences to relate to the Aussie characters, and in turn build an understanding of refugee lives this way (that is, refugees are no different from everyone else, they just want to live a safe, harmonious life). The core message of embracing change sings through loudly – something that is genuinely needed in today’s Australia. Not The Castle level brilliance, but certainly in the same playing field.
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