Crush is the long-awaited feature film debut by New Zealand director Alison Maclean, its title referrring to the emotional crush a teenage girl has on a very different and glamorous woman who enters her life.
Maclean reveals a little awkwardness in moving up from her impressively off-beat short films and Crush has structural and storytelling problems. It does, however, get better and better as it goes and the intensity of its last 20 minutes is excellent.
Donogh Rees performs brilliantly in a challenging role as a brain-damaged literary critic and Maclean fills the screen with enough idiosyncratic details of Kiwiana to make the movie recognisable and fun for local viewers.
Two women drive through the Volcanic Plateau on their way to interview a famous writer. The driver Lane (Marcia Gay Harden) is an American. Her passenger Christina (Donogh Rees) is a critic. Lane loses control of the car and, in an echo of the opening of Smash Palace, it rolls off the road. Christina is almost killed and is hospitalised in a deeply unconscious state. Lane makes contact with the writer Colin (William Zappa) and befriends his 15-year-old daughter Angela (newcomer Caitlin Bossley).
The girl, who has no mother, becomes engrossed in this bizarre new woman but is hurt when Lane begins an affair with her father. This relationship has its ups and downs and Lane’s energy and gregariousness are at odds with Colin’s general passivity. Angela now turns to the comatose Christina and gradually establishes some contact with her. Christina’s mobility haltingly reappears and it seems that both she and Angela have motives to seek revenge against Lane.
Crush is very much a character piece and its success relies on the audience’s interest in these four people. In three cases I think she has produced remarkably complex individuals. Angela is a tomboyish loner, coltish and awkward. Intelligent and sensitive, she has a good rapport with her father (that is a pleasant change from the usual incestuou idées fixes of New Zealand films) but becomes some thing of a plotter.
Lane becomes more than just a catalytic outsider disrupting family ties. Harden makes her into a pitiable as well as a powerful figure, and in the suspenseful climax at a lakeside bach we have mixed feelings about her possible fate. Rees as Christina has the hard job of playing her as a virtual vegetable (rather like the work Glenn Close did in Reversal Of Fortune), and then having her emerge into awareness like Robert De Niro in Awakenings. I believe Rees’ technical work reaches those high levels and fulfils the promise she showed as far back as Constance in 1984. Her face of implacable hate at the end is a real chiller. I must not reveal more, but audiences may cheer her last line.
Colin is the one failure, perhaps too schematic a conception but certainly too wooden and unlikeable in execution. We are asked to believe he works in a trout hatchery, that he has won the Booker Prize(!) and that Lane would be attracted to him. To me he was just a creaking plot device to set off the far more interesting dynamics among the three females.
Crush is more than a personal story and signifiers of New Zealand national identity abound. Curiously enough, Maclean has speculated that Angela’s crush on Lane may symbolise “adolescent” New Zealand’s crush on the USA. Critic Christina peppers the opening scene with generalisations about New Zealand being a prelapsarian Eden in which we seek the serpent in the garden! And she quotes Cohn McCahon’s line about us having “a landscape with too few lovers”.
Maclean fills the background with items local audiences may read wryly. Angela is first seen mowing the lawn of a quintessential suburban house. There are motels with Bambi wallpaper, race commentaries on the soundtrack, a rugby haka led by Buck Shelford on a TV screen.
The choice of Rotorua as the setting sums up this device. The film opens with a shot of a bubbling mud pool, reminding us of Maclean’s early work on the film Strata but also introducing that curious city where geological oddity mixes with a touristy, souvenir version of Maori culture. A sign portentously reads “Hell’s Gate”.
All around the edges of the foreground action, like a frieze, are Maori elements. The graves built above the heated ground. The singer and audience in a pub. The graffiti reading: “land of the wrong white crowd”. Lane’s effort at a poi dance. While visiting Christina, Angela masturbates a Maori patient beneath the sheet: surely a new twist on the colonialist lending a helping hand.
Alison Maclean has brought to Crush many of the strengths that gave her short films interest. She even jokes about these connections by naming Cohn’s book Taunt (a student film of Maclean’s) and by a moment when a hair in a bathtub hearkens back to Kitchen Sink. She has a disturbing and arresting view of sexuality exemplified in her bold editing of erotic scenes complete with cheeky visual rhymes. She has made a commendable debut here but, like Vincent Ward before her, may have to add scripting rigour to her considerable vision in order for her full promise as a director to be realised.

North & South - By Brian McDonnell - March 1993.

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