Directed by Paul Ireland
Starring John Brumpton, Damian Hill, Malcolm Kennard, Mark Cole Smith, Maeve Dermody, Kerry Armstrong
One of the surprise standouts of last year’s CinefestOz finally gets its chance to win a wider audience as the micro-budgeted Pawno gets a (admittedly limited) release.
Somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Wang’s Smoke and Blue In The Face, Pawno swaps out Harvey Keitel’s tobacconist for John Brumpton’s Footscray pawn shop as the central location that brings together a disparate ensemble of the desperate and disenfranchised and tells their stories. It’s a loose-limbed and amiable movie, although that doesn’t mean it shies away from grit: these are hardluck people living hardluck lives, and though Pawno is a very funny film at times, it carries its share of pathos and tragedy as well.
At the centre of it all is Brumpton’s Les, who rules his pawnshop kingdom with a mix of hard-nosed pragmatism and grudging empathy for his customers. At his side is the rather taciturn Danny (screenwriter Damian Hill). who harbours both hidden artistic aspirations and a crush on local bookstore clerk Kate (Maeve Dermody). Almost always present, nose buried in a racing form, is Les’s old mate, widower Harry (Tony Rickards), whose crushing loneliness becomes more apparent as the film progresses.
Comic relief comes from junkie duo Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Paulie (Mark Cole Smith), who provide a kind of Greek chorus commentary on the interweaving plotlines. Carlo is the senior partner, a self-taught man of letters almost never seen without a dog-eared paperback, while Paulie is the Stan to his Ollie, an amiably dumb charmer who always seems a few steps behind the action.
Pawno‘s strength is its characters; these people all feel real and knowable, and are brought to life by nuanced, smart performances (Kennard’s Carlo in particular rang true for me; I knew several guys exactly like him back in the bad old days). Also in the mix are the likes of Kerry Armstrong as a middle class woman well out of her depth searching for her runaway son, Daniel Fredriksen as a transgender woman trying to scrape together enough money to treat her kids on the weekend, and more. Hill has a good short story writer’s eye for telling detail, which means even the characters we spend the least amount of time with telegraph a complete existence outside the frame of the film.
Director Paul Ireland, himself an actor, is no slouch at getting good performances out of his cast, and also works wonders with the assets afforded him by the film’s tiny budget (raised by a mix of crowd funding and angel investors). The film is a little rough in places, but the tool marks are part of the aesthetic; a slick and polished approach would be a betrayal. When the camera’s on the streets, you can almost smell the fast food and detritus and car exhausts – it’s a love letter to Footscray, but a clear-eyed one.
It’s also an incredibly strong cinematic debut from both writer and director. Ireland and Hill are both obviously passionate about telling the story of the Footscray street community; if that passion and skill can translate to other projects and milieus, the sky’s the limit. In the meantime, go see Pawno – it’s simply great.