Feature Narrative Reviews

Wanda and Sully (2023) – 2 stars

Director: Matt Williams

Writer: Scott Day & Joshua Marchant

Cast: Mieke Billing Smith, Grant Young, Darby Teesdale, Mitchell James O’Neil, Amy Leigh Raffe, Callum Gault

Running time: 1hr 30mins

Individual bias always plays a role in a review written by a single critic – that’s unavoidable. Wanda and Sully features three of my most loathed indy-sins – cartoonish ‘swoosh’ sounds accompanying rapid camera movement, a story built around high school ‘drama’, and a script desperate to play to as many banal Hollywood staples as possible – so this was never a project that was likely to receive a glowing five-star recommendation from me.

Before I get into that, though, I want to make the positives clear. This is not the worst film I’ve seen come out of Australia by a long way – and while that sounds like (and to an extent is) damning Wanda and Sully with the faintest of praise, there are some aspects of the production which I managed to enjoy in spite of myself.

First, Darby Maxwell’s cinematography is arguably the glue that holds the entire production together. On multiple occasions, Maxwell is tasked with contrasting almost sickeningly bright and colourful scenes with dark, grimy neo-noir elements – and manages to pull it off with aplomb. During a Dark Night-inspired interrogation scene inside a cramped washroom, Maxwell makes the darkness around the characters seem deep and cavernous, while the camera catches every bead of sweat glinting across the panicked brow of the suspect. At the same time, a scene straight from All the President’s Men taking place in a shadowy carpark carries all of the gravitas necessary to deliver one of the film’s most successful punchlines: a bemused middle-aged man having unsuspectingly dragged his shopping trolley into the middle of a major political scandal.

These enjoyable moments of contrast bring me to Scott Day and Joshua Marchant’s script – and more specifically its merciful hints of self-awareness. The story follows Sully (Grant Young) and Wanda (Mieke Billing Smith) as they fight to uncover a conspiracy involving their class president and teacher, who may be misusing school funds to buy students coffee – as well as a more complicated grift relating to an in-school app. In the grand scheme of things, neither of the charges are an especially big deal, and the script is at its best when it plays up the scandal’s absurd comparisons to Watergate.

As seen in Alexander Payne’s high school farce Election, a plot around this kind of complete triviality only takes us along for the ride if characters are capable of voicing our innate disdain for them. In that scenario, outsider Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell) immediately helps us invest in the unfolding absurdity by calling out high school democracy as a sham, and vowing to disband it if she were to become class president. Here, various characters catch sight of themselves, as if to say “what the hell am I even doing here?” – most notably, Mr Redwood (Mitchell James O’Neil). Following a meeting in a shady backroom, where he has tried to hobble a threat to his puppet-president, he basks in his momentary success by sighing, and putting on an MP3 of Gerry Rafferty’s bombastic Baker Street, while he returns to the grind of marking papers. It is a hilariously dejected victory lap.

O’Neil’s performance stands out among a lot of the cast, and deserves a great deal of credit. He has a number of soliloquies where he comes across as a compelling villain – but also never feels like he has gotten carried away to think about this in grander terms than it deserves. Yes, he is outsmarting children, but he is a grown man – one who, even with a very cunning plan, is left without the financial means to avoid sleeping in his car and wearing shorts to work after a fire consumed his house and all his belongings. The problem with this is that – and yes, we’re getting into the problems now – it often makes him a more honest and relatable presence than the film’s protagonists.

One moment sees Redwood confront Jonathan – his mewling president of choice – in a private meeting. Having tried to play along with the idea they are equal players in his schemes, the mask slips for a second, and he despairingly rips into his accomplice – baring all the anger and sadness from his situation, and how his only route out of it seems to hinge on a C- student destined for eternal mediocrity. It’s a great example of O’Neil’s range, and his commitment to a project which has very little weight at all without him, but it also underscores just how dislikable Wanda and Sully are.

Wanda is written as a 16-year-old Hillary Clinton; her unquestioning adoption of the status quo has made her an A+ student, in so far as she can flawlessly reel off vague and meandering liberal platitudes at the drop of a hat. Repeatedly she makes telling calls for “sensible finance” as part of her platform – a hallmark of the establishment Democrat who loathes poor people just as much as any dyed-in-the-wool conservative – while at another point she points to Sully’s trainers and suggests they are something someone from a deprived background would wear. Her solution to this example of systemic injustice? Well spending money is right out of bounds, so she simply calls for “improved education” to give her friend the opportunity to work his way out of poverty.

Sully’s character is badly underwritten, and perhaps it is never as obvious as in that moment. He is one of the few Black students at the school – and also comes from America. You might think that the script would do something with that. But beyond telling his conspicuously blonde-haired, blue-eyed pal not to use him as a “pawn” in her political campaign, he has very little to say about something that stinks to high heaven of privilege, if not outright racism and classism. And this is a guy who early on is said by one of his detractors to speak like Holden Caulfield.

In one respect, I can see that. The protagonist and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is unable to relate to women as actual human beings, objectifying them either by looking down on them as “dumb” or subjecting them to unrealistic standards of innocence and virtue. Sully similarly has trouble seeing women as his equals – to the extent that one has to explicitly disguise themselves to leak him information that he will not listen to her about while she visibly presents as a woman. However, Holden Caulfield was a 15-year-old boy written in the 1950s. Sully does not even have that excuse then, however valid you find it, and his lack of an arc relating to it is frankly off-putting.

The script dances around both issues in a way that is genuinely bemusing. To make this comedy work, it needed to spend much less time on tired American tropes around post-Nixon Hollywood, JD Salinger, or mean popular kids, and instead add significantly more satirical bite in relation to modern politics. Whenever talking about sexism, racism or classism becomes a prospect, though, the film folds in embarrassing fashion. When Sully has learned too much, for example, Redwood and Jonathan decide to silence him with something which has inescapably racist undertones. They plant cannabis in his locker, and immediately begin work to get him expelled, while jovially denouncing him as a drug addict to the whole school.

On top of this being insanely illegal compared to the very convoluted data-mining operation they actually have going on – they are now looking at jail-time to prevent what would probably result in a fine – it is not a good look for the film to entirely avoid any kind of commentary on contemporary racism here on behalf of Sully. Even when the plot is foiled and uncovered, nobody is willing to say with conviction why it was wrong – it’s played off as being a mean-spirited lie, rather than a fraudulent and scandalous attempt to weaponise racist tropes about drug use in Black communities to cover up wrong-doing.

This non-committal look gets worse for the film, when the only nod to issues of that nature comes from the school’s crackpot news host Eugene Lemon – who slanders Black Lives Matter as a ‘humorous aside’ during one of his monologues. Callum Gault comes close to stealing the show as Lemon – giving an unreservedly deranged performance as a ‘teenage’ conspiracy theorist, who is convinced both of the existence of “bee people”, and that “vaccines are turning people gender-fluid”.

Placed by Sully on the school’s televised bulletin as an anchor (in some completely detached attempt to expose school corruption, which makes no sense, and ultimately backfires) he is an overtly toxic character, but again, he causes a little problem for viewers. He’s making an effort, and that’s more than can be said for either lead actor, so his facial ticks and screeching vocals end up offering us a welcome reprieve from all the other monotony on display.

Finally, then, that brings me to Mieke Billing Smith and Grant Young. I still maintain there is no such thing as a bad actor – only bad casting and lazy direction. Most Ken Loach films show that if you put the right person in a role where they can leverage their lived experiences to inform their responses, whether they are classically trained or not, they can do a great job. In the case of the two leads, I don’t think they are good here – but I am loath to suggest that is their fault alone.

Young overtly struggles with his dialogue, that is undeniable. Often, lines blur together to create confusing non-starters. At one point it sounds as though he calls Redwood “the world’s worst-best Bond villain”; while at another moment he seems to introduce his colleague at the news show “my guffre Jimmy”.

Trying to work out what the hell he said took me several rewatches – a luxury which cinema audiences would not have – before realising the following line confirms he called Jimmy his “gofer” rather than his girlfriend, as I had suspected. None of this was helped by the utterly needless cramming of another Americanism into proceedings which will be utterly unfamiliar to people outside the Hollywood bubble. That is symptomatic of a script which does very little to help Young with his fumbled delivery. For instance, perhaps there could have been a re-write of the ‘snappy’ one-liner “You call that a newspaper, that’s a bulletin board without the board and I feel ripped off to find that brainfart amusing inside of a fortune cookie”, which could have made the line easier for Young to actually deliver, and actually funny?

Indeed, Young isn’t helped by a whole lot of that kind of ‘too clever by half’ West Wing banter. Everyone is so very keen to show how clever and skilful they are, leading to seemingly endless sentences which lose our interest well before they get to the point. But the unerring one-note enthusiasm with which he gambols through these lines is all on him, and it becomes insufferable from the first act onwards.

Similarly, Billing Smith is not given a lot to work with, but her delivery lacks any kind of variation. While it might be believable for someone performing politics to act like they have a steel rod running the length of their torso on stage, there is never a moment of ‘turning off’. When she is out of the public eye, we never get a different note from Wanda suggesting she is more comfortable, or less determined to meet public expectations.

She also struggles to be heard in a crucial moment of dialogue, where she finally accuses Redwood and Jonathan of “selling studensahda”. Eventually context clues show that this line was “selling students’ data” – but moments like this need more thought if films like this plan to screen to a general audience. We need to hear this key accusation, especially when it is being filtered through an Australian accent. So, either the director Matt Williams needs to reshoot the scene, asking the actor to make sure to enunciate a little more deliberately, or he needs to ask for a re-write which can deliver the same meaning naturally, without the threat of words running together.

In the end it is Williams who I think has most to answer for, relating to any of the above. From start to finish, he will have had opportunities to guide actors on their choices, or to reshape the script around their abilities, and he appears to have let an awful lot slide on by, wasting some good work from the technical artists involved in the film in the process.

There is not much left to say here. This isn’t an absolute disaster of a film. It’s not overtly harmful or toxic. But it is riddled with half-baked ideas, missed opportunities, and a lack of originality that mean its 90-minute run-time is not remotely worth enduring.

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