Down Under (2016)

How much can one country take?

During Christmas 2005, racial tensions between ‘true blue’ white Australians and Lebanese descendents reached a boiling point at Cronulla Beach, Sydney; the resulting violent clash becoming one of the most infamous riots in Australian history.

The next day, tensions are still high and citizens are on alert for retaliation revolts. Eager for another fight, ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies, hard-lined Jason (Damon Herriman) and recently tattooed Ditch (Justin Rosniak), recruit their mate, easy-going Shit-Stick (Alexander England) and his down-syndrome cousin Evan (Chris Bunton), as they drive around the neighborhood hunting any Lebanese people they can find.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Hassim (Lincoln Younes) is trying to have a quiet study day, when his old school friend Nick (Rahel Romahn) insists Hassim join him to find his absent younger brother and take revenge on the Aussies. Along for the ride are beat-boxing D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) and the uptight Ibrahim (Michael Denkha).

With both sides armed and dangerous, it all comes down to one night, a lot of taut nervousness and a collision course to the inevitable.

'Hey ma, can we get back to the bbq now?'
‘Hey ma, can we get back to the bbq now?’

It still seems surreal that the Cronulla riots actually happened within the last decade or so, the confusion about the motivations behind it still debated to this day. It makes sense then that writer-director Abe Forsythe’s Down Under confronts that very confusion with a black comedy tone to throw light on some very ugly issues and to remind us that this event really did occur — just check out the real-life footage during the prologue!

Forsythe finds much irony in the misplaced anger of both sides — the ‘Lebs’ arguably being generally more sympathetic, with Nick simply acting like a tough gangster because he wants to, the others guilty for allowing it, while the Aussies haven’t ever thought through their notions of what it means to be Australian. It’s from these sharp observations that the biggest laughs are to be had — just wait till you hear Shit-Stick’s unintentional unraveling of Jason’s impractical dream of building a wall to block out all the ethnic groups.

The cast are all round pretty solid, bringing some dimension to what initially just seems to be a bunch of stereotypes — think Fat Pizza (2003) style — but slowly showing they each have a little more depth than initially meets the eye. Damon Herriman, 100 Bloody Acres (2012), has a lot of heavy lifting to do to make the aggressive racist Jason accessible enough to spend time with. He manages to get there by having his anger overturned by his whiny pregnant girlfriend — Stacey, played by an enthusiastic Harriet Dyer, Killing Ground (2016). It’s this contrast that shows Herriman’s range and Forsythe’s ability to humanize his characters in his rather on point writing.

Alexander England, Gods of Egypt (2016), and Chris Bunton (making his film debut here) round off the harsher moments with warmth and levity as the unexpected voices of reason amongst the sillier tirades. Speaking of silly, the goofballs, Justin Rosniak, Animal Kingdom (2010), and Fayssal Bazzi, Cedar Boys (2009), give it their all as the go-to airheads in the Australian and Lebanese groups respectively.

Still standing after a big night!
Still standing after a big night!

As director Forsythe has a firm grasp of tone and style, the film feel as slick as other ‘wild night’ type romps — think Superbad (2007) for one. His use of familiar Christmas tunes on the soundtrack and bursts of color through cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s excellent lensing, make for a flick that could appeal more broadly if given a solid chance.

As the movie shifts into a more serious statement towards the end, while tonally different, it’s not entirely out-of-place — a feeling of the inevitable that had been brewing all along and carefully seeded from the get-go — the third act bringing home the pointlessness of all the violent desires and uncalled for hatred. In lesser hands, this could all be seen as too much or ill-considered, but clearly, with a strong grasp of Australian contradictions, as demonstrated in Abe Forsythe’s tragically underseen feature debut Ned (2003) — an irreverent take on Ned Kelly culture — he simply knows how to deliver it.

One can only hope that, as per Forsythe’s sincere wishes, Down Under’s message will get to the right people and maybe, amongst the laughs, they’ll pause and think.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Down Under is released through Studio Canal Australia