Reframing the Bildungsroman:
Stanley's Mouth and Youth on the March

by Ben Kooyman

Stanley's Mouth (dir. Mike Retter, 2015, 61 mins, Australia)
Youth on the March (dir. Mike Retter, 2017, 80 mins, Australia)

Stanley's Mouth (left) and Youth on the March (right)

The bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, is a popular genre in Australia cinema, and many of the country’s premier directors, screenwriters, actors and craftspeople have played in this sandbox. The Devil’s Playground, The Getting of Wisdom, My Brilliant Career, Puberty Blues, The Year My Voice Broke, The Nostradamus Kid, Looking for Alibrandi, and Jasper Jones are among the genre’s finest local offerings. But all popular genres fall prey to gentrification, and a duo of Adelaide-based filmmakers are, quite literally, reframing the Australian bildungsroman with D.I.Y. grit and challenging subject matter. 


Director/cinematographer Mike Retter and producer/editor Allison Chhorn made the leap from operating a video store, Port Adelaide’s Film Buff Central, to making films with 2015’s Stanley’s Mouth and 2017’s Youth on the March, both products of their Port Film Co-Op. The logo (above) which opens their films features the recognisable mug of Nicholas Hope from his title role in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, immediately signalling their work’s Port Adelaide roots and setting as well as their place in a genealogy of daring Australian cinema. The logo also establishes another important aspect of their film: vertical framing. Retter shoots in 9:16 portrait mode, which is to say the camera is positioned sideways and their films are best watched in a vertical portrait rather than horizontal landscape mode. This makes them perfectly tailored for viewing on mobile devices, though I’d dig the opportunity to view them on a vertical movie screen.


Stanley’s Mouth and Youth on the March are both micro-budget contemporary urban dramas, but of very different stripes. Stanley’s Mouth is an earnest, observational glimpse into the life of title character Stanley (played by namesake Stanley Browning), a twentysomething Christian man starting to explore his sexual identity. Whilst Stanley’s sexual identity appears outwardly at odds with his faith and upbringing, Retter and Chhorn quietly eschew obvious clash of culture tropes, instead presenting these cultures simply as parallel aspects of Stanley’s life. Youth on the March, meanwhile, centres on the frequently strained relationship between Gill (Ben Ryan) and his single mother Stef (Stefanie Rossi). Stef works around the clock, Gill neither works nor studies, and much of the screen-time is devoted to Gill’s aimless and often dubious recreational activities: bong smoking, minor property damage, and other chintzy hedonism.


There are few ‘big’ moments in Stanley’s Mouth: it’s a film of small and observed moments, often focused on the mundane, and never sensationalised. The tall, narrow framing crops, obscures, or fragments some scenes, making them feel voyeuristically captured. In other scenes, intense close-ups and shots dwell on fabrics, objects, and textures, giving the scenes a heightened tactility. In contrast, Youth on the March's compositions are more overtly cinematic: shots are captured from unusual vantage points and odd angles, often to woozy effect, with each scene affording new opportunities for testing where to place the camera and how to move the camera. While both films are ultimately grounded in seemingly everyday environs and activities, Youth on the March's deliberate showmanship makes it feel more like a film structured around set pieces and gags, or ‘big’ little scenes.


While neither Stanley’s Mouth nor Youth on the March have conventionally absorbing narratives – due to their loose story structures and focus on technique and form – they are compelling in their drive and delight to experiment, to flip – both metaphorically and literally – our received wisdom about the cinematic frame. Whilst Retter and Chhorn have cut their teeth on unconventional bildungsromans, they are currently working on a third 9:16 feature that marks a departure from this terrain and their Port Adelaide stomping ground: an adult romantic thriller set in South Australia’s wine regions. Between this new venture and their other extracurricular activities – including the publication of a new independent film zine, Cinema Now – these cats attest to the passionate and novel work being done by independents outside the government-funded Australian film industry.


Also check an interview with Stanley Browning, main actor in Stanley's Mouth.

Ben Kooyman is a teacher and author based in Sydney whose writings on Australian film can be found at Down Under Flix, where you can read full reviews of Stanley’s Mouth and Youth on the March.

Published July 6, 2018. © Ben Kooyman, July 2018