Swinging Safari is an Australian comedy by acclaimed filmmaker Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) with a star-studded cast of actors also from Down Under. It is set in the summer of 1975 in Nobbys Beach, a suburban coastal little town where white families fought boredom the best way they could; meaning spending their free time at the beach, surfing, barbecuing, gossiping and drinking. All while the kids were running around mostly unsupervised.
Swinging Safari is filled with colorful characters and a dead whale, but the protagonist and narrator are 14-year-old Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb). He is the “different” kid, an outsider, a thinker. He’s quieter and not as wild as the other teenagers around him. On his birthday he receives a camera, and he decides to capture everything that happened in Nobbys Beach at that time ‘in the hope that one day [he] could edit the madness together and answer the question what was going on through [their] poor misguided heads.’ And, this is pretty much the premise of Swinging Safari. In the course of a summer, Jeff will discover himself and learn more about the changing world around him where everyone was concerned for, one reason or another, about the giant blue whale that washed up on their beach.
Jeff also makes home movies with a group of children living in his cul-de-sac, and he introduces us to the three families who ‘live, surf and cross the lines together.’
First, we meet the Hall and their chaotic lives. Keith (Guy Pearce), a salesman earning pennies, and Kaye (Kylie Minogue), an alcoholic housewife, who lives in a rundown house with their six kids who are practically untamed and are actors or stuntmen in Jeff’s movies.
Then we meet the Joneses who have ‘the biggest car, house, and hair.’ Jo (Radha Mitchell) and Rick (Julian McMahon), are a very flamboyant couple living in a flashy mansion full of “exotic things” with their daughter Melissa (Darcey Wilson). Melissa, or Melly, is described as ‘invisible’ as she also is different from the pack, being shy, clever, kind or good-hearted. She wants to see the world and does not want to grow up becoming like her parents or typical Nobbys’ residents. She is Jeff secret crush, and they share many things, in particular, scars on their arms due to a freak accident — one time their modern fabric pajamas caught fire — and so they have been nicknamed the ‘flammable children.’
Lastly, we meet the Marshes or Jeff own family. His parents are Bob (Jeremy Sims), a sales representant overstuffing their home with all kinds of products, and Gale (Asher Keddie), whose life consists of, basically, only playing tennis, shopping and chatting.
Apart from the depressing news of the dead whale making its way around the country, Nobbys Beach is almost secluded from the rest of the world and all the children in the film are pretty much delivered to themselves — aside from the little guidance their school manages to give them — and so, Jeff educates himself through movies. This part of the film, or the “kid with a camera trope,” had some Me and Earl and the Dying Girl vibe — or any movie of the sort really! — as Jeff 100 % fits the “genius precocious cinephile” stereotype, we are accustomed to seeing on screen. Thus, there are numerous montages of his DIY shorts and their making-of where we see the youngsters improvising stunts and dangerous practical effects. This part of the film will please many viewers and is quite relatable as we are shown kids being kids and having the time of their lives. Swinging Safari is very much an ensemble piece where the whole cast is competent, but the kids are all really fabulous in their individual roles.
After a first act spent introducing everybody and setting the tone, the film takes an unexpected (not so kid friendly!) turn, and from there, everything changes for our protagonist and Melly, who is also genuinely affected and saddened by the mistreatment of the whale. They already felt trapped but, now more than ever, are determined to escape their close-minded sunny bubble. It is the kind of movie where everybody has an opinion on everything and, of course, they are all in discordance: delightful and predictable. So, things fall apart, but it makes the characters realize that changes are happening or need to happen, and, then, the film ends with a bang (literally!)
Swinging Safari might be best appreciated as a slice of life or an “exotic trip to 70’s Australia” for outsiders and, although everything is extremely caricatured for the fun of it, it really captures the moment, a lifestyle and a people that did or did not exist. It feels like a project consisting of many true moments stitched together to make an unbelievable story with a lost environmental message and parents doing the best they can to force their children into adulthood the wrong ways. Therein lies, perhaps, the biggest mistake of the film, as some would argue that they should have stuck with either telling the kids story or the parents one as it was confusing and made no sense rating-wise. Originally titled ‘Flammable Children,’ referring to the leading duo, they regrettably opted to retitle the film Swinging Safari, as it is the name of a song the parents listened to at one pivotal moment. It again put the adults (and their irresponsible behaviors) at the center which might be misleading considering this is very much “the story of Atticus Marsh the summer when a great blue whale washed up on the shore.”
Furthermore, although the final product is pleasing, there were many cringing moments, and it is a movie that would easily disappoint — if not offend — some viewers with the portrayals of heavily stereotyped Australians and various cliches pilling on (on top of the “exoticism” or other tone-deaf aspects of the film). Others will point out the few blatant anachronism mistakes or the lack of a tight narrative or storyline.
However, Swinging Safari displays some exceptionally great production design with wonderful props and decors. The costume, hair, and makeup were, likewise, delightful and, overall, the film is visually pleasing. [Oh, and it also has a good soundtrack full of nostalgic and good vibrations!]
The descriptions and narration are highly entertaining, and better than average, even though it might be a bit intense, particularly in the beginning, for those not found of voiceover.
It is a bit hard to tell what kind of film Swinging Safari wants to be. Again, it could have easily been a great PG or “family friendly” coming-of-age movie, but few scenes make this impossible. So, it is safe to assume that the best way to seeing this film is as a partly autobiographical ode to the children of the 70s destined to any adult/mature viewer craving a bit of nostalgia (even if it is a fake one!) or just looking to spend a good time watching a campy comedy that would be fun, well-done and engaging despite the usual problems that accompanied such films (very little regards for facts, logic or political correctness).
Although Swinging Safari was released in Australia in 2018 to very mixed reviews, time will tell if it manages to become an Aussie cinema classic for international audiences as it has many things in its favor but failed to dig deeper, where it could have, without losing its fun. But, in the end, what Swinging Safari lacks in the story is made up in originality and a satisfying art direction.