Director: Criss Gidas
Writer: Criss Gidas
Cast: Annaliese McGuire, Giuseppe D’Allura, Katie Anderson, Michael Deed, Michael Joaquin, Rebecca Saunders-Smith
Running time: 22mins
I don’t often read the description of a film before I review it for Indy Film Library. I prefer to go into the movie ‘blind’, not having been able to form an opinion on what it should or shouldn’t include before beginning it. This week, I made an exception. I wanted find a film to mark International Women’s Day with – and after a little search, it seemed I had found the perfect candidate.
“In Georgia, an up-and-coming figure skater’s career is put in jeopardy when she is accused of having an abortion,” read writer and director Criss Gidas’ blurb, while her director’s statement added, “The motivation to create a story like this is to really challenge the audiences in their perceptions of how we live our lives, especially in the family environment. It’s important because of the current and relevant issues.” A film about women, by women, billed as looking to inform and challenge its audience – all these are things which should make for an ideal subject matter for today’s review.
Unfortunately, Wireless soon reminded me why I try to avoid reading PR before rolling a film. The film itself was a crushing disappointment by its own standards; one which left me utterly bemused as to whether I was watching a dramatisation of the traumatic and brutal impact conservative laws and ideologies have on real women, or a fever dream directed by David Lynch. I suppose in some regards, the latter would “challenge the audiences in their perceptions of how we live our lives,” but arguably not in the way that Gidas and her crew had hoped to.
The film centres on the infamous Georgia House Bill 481, also known as “The Heartbeat Bill”, was an American anti-abortion law that sought to prevent physicians practicing medicine in the US state of Georgia from performing abortions beyond six weeks, except in special situations. While the bill was strongly criticised by activists across the US, and many celebrities in Hollywood threatened to boycott the state of Georgia if it were passed, the bill did pass the state’s legislature – something which seems to have prompted this entirely Australian production team to try and show what the consequences might be.
Fortunately for women in Georgia, the bill was ‘temporarily blocked’ in 2019, before being ruled unconstitutional at a Federal level in 2020 – never having had the chance to be put into practice. Unfortunately for Gidas and co. this seems to have left her with a large amount of no-doubt expensive footage of Australians pretending to be in Georgia, and nothing to link it to the real world with.
While the production was not completed until December 2019, it would not have been hard to update its stark opening card, which states as fact that women in Georgia could be criminally investigated under the already-blocked law, and “face jail time.” I appreciate that “what if” is the crux of the story here – but failing to amend this note to say “if the block is overturned to allow this law” means either informed audience members will begin questioning the integrity of the wider production, or the audience members the film sought to inform will actually be mis-informed.
All this is slightly academic, however, as whatever the credibility the opening credits could have had would be almost immediately undermined by the ensuing chaos of the script, plot and performances on display. As to the first of those, the script is plainly written to accommodate for a non-American cast having to deliver the lines – meaning any dialect or verbal ticks which could have grounded these characters in the South has been utterly scrubbed from the screenplay. At the same time, the script goes round the houses to try and explain why, when some actors cannot handle even the milquetoast American’t drawl of the bulk of the cast, they are even there.
Kiara (Annaliese McGuire) is a figure skater who is trialling for the next Winter Olympics team. Following a successful trial, news of her having had an abortion leaks in a press conference taking place inside an air-tight cube (the walls are black, no sponsorships, logos, team crests, no visible exit) – and a reporter begins tactlessly laying into her on the matter. The reported suddenly blurts “is it true you had an abortion?” before the world seems to crumble around Kiara, leaving us to wonder if this is simply an anxiety dream, and Kiara is wondering “what if someone finds out?” It would make sense then that what would otherwise be an extremely colourful corporate event has been hosted inside a horse-box. It would also explain why the reporter believes she can pillory a woman for presuming to care for her body in any way she sees fit, without her job at the Melbourne Advertiser coming under pressure.
The film sticks to its guns, however, and despite its clear budgetary and logistical limitations decides it must be real. Kiara’s life swiftly falls apart, and despite having “won silver at So-shee,” the US Olympics Committee bin her over the scandal – in spite of clearly having enough PR fires to fight elsewhere. At the same time, Kiara’s adoptive parents – who have already been excruciatingly explained as devout conservative Christians – kick her out, leaving her to seek refuge at her coach’s apartment.
Saoirse is Irish, presumably because it is an accent Rebecca Saunders-Smith was more comfortable with – but the evidence of that is thin on the ground. It takes the audible equivalent of squinting to discern where the clearly Kiwi actress is trying to affect an Irish brogue. As if this weren’t disorientating enough, Saoirse and Kiara are suddenly joined by our protagonist’s adopted mother Siobhan (Katie Anderson).
In a terrifying turn of events, Siobhan suddenly materialises in the middle of the dining room to sling mud at the pair. In this nightmarish scene, the Anderson’s overacting will leave audiences speechless for all the wrong reasons, as she gurns her way through her garbled dialogue, aware she is supposed to be angry – but woefully unaware of how to portray. Perhaps her confusion is slightly mitigated by the fact she is only her to throw expository dialogue at us regarding two relationships neither the audience nor the actors have had any time to learn about.
The twist sees us ham-fistedly force-fed the true identity of Kiara’s mother – something we didn’t need at all, and which adds nothing at all to the impact of the story. Instead, we cut to Kiara competing successfully at another skating event of some kind, in front of a crowd that is conspicuously smaller than the cacophonous applause added in post would have us believe. Like the end of a boxing film, where after all the personal trauma our hero manages to shrug it off in a final triumphant bout, Kiara puts in a sparkling show – perhaps the film’s finest sequence – but even this is fatally undermined by ‘police’ being shown waiting in the wings, Fisher-Price badges in hand, waiting to take her into custody.
Ultimately, the production commits itself to some gymnastic feats which far out-shine the choreography of the on-screen skaters. It tries to assure us that it takes place in the US, at the height of a young skater’s career, while depicting half-filled skating rinks and barren, and claustrophobic press-rooms filled with Australians. It encourages us to learn from it regarding women and abortion, despite being out of date not only regarding the laws of Georgia, but Ireland – which began legal abortions 12 months before the film was completed. It claims to be a film to help us reach important conclusions about one of the most oppressive and politicised issues women face in the modern world – but it ends up leaving us dazed, confused, and short of answers about its over-stuffed turkey of a plot. What a shame.
Probably the most important lesson any independent filmmaker should take away here is that it is incumbent upon you to write a story within your means. There are very few people who will give you points for promising something greater than your time, resources or skills were capable of delivering. Not only would this film benefit from being more low-key on a technical level, however, it would probably be more emotionally affecting too. This film would have been infinitely more engaging in a stripped-down form, centring on a relatable young woman who is maybe on the cusp of breaking into professional skating, building some believable relationships with her friends and family, and exposing the trauma she endures when some of them react badly to her choice to abort the pregnancy – not to mention giving more time to actually address why women have abortions, or why it should be nothing to do with male legislators what they do with their bodies – before a climactic skating scene to show with or without them her life will go on. If only.