Written and directed by John Fraser, Eugene, a lonely photographer, becomes fixated on a young street prostitute, Josephine, in his rundown neighbourhood. She becomes his muse and his photographs could be a way out for both of them – yet is Eugene saving Josephine or is he using her?. Starring: Peter Flaherty, Krista Vendy, Jack Campbell, Sarah Timm, Andy McPhee, Roger Ward, Kym Valentine, Lee Mason and Jillian Murray.
Trying to make a film about the exploitation of women, from the perspective of a man, with a saviour element and trying to incorporate manipulation, crime and ethics, presents a huge challenge to strike the right tone. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge that Choir Girl wasn’t up to, it starts off struggling to grapple with the grit and discomfort that its story brings and never quite gets a handle on it before it all goes downhill. In its second half it makes too many poor choices for its story, becoming unclear about where it actually stands and what it’s going for. It moves into explicit territory which it doesn’t have the weight to handle and a lot of which feels unnecessary. The longer it goes on, the less self-aware it becomes and gives way to the attitudes and aggression that it was seemingly against earlier on. Particularly in the sense of trying to frame Eugene as a good guy but at times slipping into the incel frame that the atmosphere has built for him.
It’s become a more frequent choice for films with a gritty or dark edge to use a monochrome aesthetic, to push your focus more to the atmosphere and story. This story does fit that purpose and it primarily works but it’s lacking a sharpness or depth to make it more effective, although it does feel apparent that were it to use colour, it could have added a cheaper side to its scenes. It creates a tension but not one strong enough to pull off the almost espionage style edge that it’s going for. Its attempt to bring through a controversy is also contrived, and it falls into a predictable pattern. Part of the struggle is that it views the story through the lens of its lead, with his naivety and sentimental nature, which is entirely at odds with the gritty and heavy themes that it’s going for.
The acting is consistent across the board but it does similarly struggle with the tone, it plays out too simple and sentimental. The construction of Eugene’s character isn’t done very well, they build a stereotypical box then try to break him out of it and it doesn’t work. It’s difficult to reconcile the harsh and unforgiving reality that unfolds around him, that he photographs regularly, with his intense naivety, then a last ditch attempt at a bigger intelligence for him which is unconvincing. Peter Flaherty does a decent job for the most part but it’s difficult to tell whether the downfall of his character is the writing or that he’s missing out on bringing a complexity to Eugene. The rest of the cast goes along similar lines, they’re all consistent but don’t give particularly memorable or layered performances.
Choir Girl is ultimately misguided and lacks self-awareness. The topic itself was a risky choice, and the tone really needed to be perfect to pull it off and the filmmakers land far from the mark. After the half-way point, it quickly descends into problematic territory, and undoes almost anything of value from the first half. It attempts to use exploitation in its story but ends up feeling exploitative, the same way that it attempts to use discomfort and results in something purely uncomfortable. It wasn’t a great choice for a story, and it simply doesn’t have the weight or depth to pull it off.