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An immediately identifiable film that ultimately gives you far too many questions to answer.
There are passages in "The Fringe Dwellers" where the characters' irrationality goes beyond the limits of understandability. They do foolish things and interact in such destructive and confusing ways that it often makes them impossible to identify with. As much as this is a film designed to give you insight into current (at least, for 1986) social drama in the Aboriginal culture, that might not be a very positive experience. This is a story that leaves you more with a sense of confusion and alienation than anything else. And, unfortunately, that extends to even the most central themes of the story. We are told that the racist people condone the Aboriginal girl's actions because they figure "she doesn't know better". But by the end of the film, we are asked, even expected, to do the very same.
As for Bruce Beresford's directorial style here, it has more in common with films like "Crimes of the Heart" and "Mister Johnson" than "Tender Mercies" or "Driving Miss Daisy". Which is to say, more overacting than realism. Beresford has one main strength, and that is how he works with actors. If he doesn't succeed in this pursuit, his films often feel somewhat gutted. That is partly the case with "The Fringe Dwellers". There are scenes with Trilby (Kristina Nehm) that draw the viewer in with a very real sort of intensity. Nehm has a deeply charismatic feeling about her. There are other great, brief scenes. The highlight of the entire film is a long, uncut passage where a mother speaks of the past as her daughter lies in bed after giving birth. This is a movie of convincing silences. When observation takes over conversation, it is nearly perfect in its realization.
In the end, there's something about it all that just doesn't come together. Thanks to cinematographer Donald McAlpine, it's often a very stunning film to look at. But the uneven acting, the strange directions the script takes, and the inability to construct something truly heartbreaking leaves "The Fringe Dwellers" as somewhat more of a curiosity than a proper classic.
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