Esther Blueburger is a conspicuous outcast at her drearily non-ethnic, sadistically hierarchal private high school. But it’s hard to imagine a place where she would fit in. More annoying than endearing, a would-be rebel without a hint of a cause, she’s the quintessential spoiled brat.
The ambitious Australian fable-cum-drama “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” misfires on a number of levels, but its biggest miscalculation is a protagonist who “blossoms” from winsome ugly duckling into unlikable know-it-all. Of all the determined Jewish underdogs ever etched in celluloid, a category that includes Sammy Glick, Fanny Brice and Duddy Kravitz, Esther is one of the least sympathetic.
That was surely not the intent of Aussie-born, L.A.-groomed writer-director Cathy Randall, who was aiming for a blend of candy-cane fairytale and emotionally grounded teen angst. Her idiosyncratic portrait might connect with women who experience(d) adolescence as misfits, but a movie that progressively squanders its goodwill is what other viewers will detachedly observe.
“Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” is the opening night film of the 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It also screens three additional times during the festival, in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Rafael.
In case her name wasn’t enough of a tip-off that she’s Jewish, there’s talk of Esther’s imminent bat mitzvah almost from the beginning of the movie. She seems to view the ceremony and party as a rite of obligation, and an expected source of embarrassment when she has to invite — and be rejected by — her classmates.
It’s tough to get a fix on her bland, assimilated-to-the-max parents, with Mom perpetually distracted by materialist trivialities and Dad registering with a lone touching gesture at the bar mitzvah. In this stultifying suburb, Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) isn’t different because she’s Jewish but because her classmates arbitrarily designated her for ostracization
Hence the fresh appeal of Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider”), a quasi-punkish girl who, for some mysterious reason, finds Esther intriguing and befriends her. In short order, Sunni smuggles Esther into her public school as a Swedish exchange student, a conceit that’s almost as ridiculous as Esther’s ability to conceal her truancy from her mother for an extended period of time. (Pricey private schools in Australia don’t have telephones, apparently, and students there only communicate with parents via post.)
It’s never clear what Esther is running from or is attracted to, other than fewer humiliations and more fun. But her nastier side comes to the fore, a turn of events we can’t blame on Sunni, who’s not even close to a bad girl in either a movie or real-life sense. She isn’t the agent so much as the opening for Esther’s rebellious streak to flower.
Surely Australia has some genuine juvenile delinquents, but the artfully photographed “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” is less attracted to grittiness than to pastel surfaces. Indeed, as Esther develops cockiness, er, confidence, and emerges as a liar and a bully, the soundtrack fills up with pop songs in an effort to soften the harshening tone.
Similarly, the Jewish context — mostly centered around Esther’s bat mitzvah — ultimately doesn’t add up to anything more than a bit of idiosyncratic background that feels less like character definition than bits the filmmaker is recreating from her own childhood.
All in all, “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” is a rather odd choice to open the festival, not because its Jewishness is skin deep but because the movie isn’t interested in speaking to a large chunk of the audience — namely, men.
“Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” screens at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Castro Theatre , San Francisco; 6:15 p.m. Aug. 4 at CineArts at Palo Alto Square; 6:45 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley; and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. More information: www.sfjff.org.