The Fringe Dwellers: gentle comedy with limited message about a family struggling with racial prejudice and discrimination

Bruce Beresford, “The Fringe Dwellers” (1986)

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Nene Gare, this gentle and minimally made movie is a compassionate look at the plight of an Australian Aboriginal family struggling with poverty, racial prejudice and culture shock and the effect these have on a young teenage girl in the family. When we first meet them, the Comeaways are living in a shack in a shanty-town on the edge of a town in rural Australia: they don’t have electricity or hot water on tap of course but what they lack in material things, they make up for in close family support and ties. One of the teenage girls, Trilby (Kristina Nehm), dreams of the family moving to a better house and neighbourhood where blacks and whites live in harmony and trust, and of completing her education and being able to get a job and work on equal terms with white people in the city. When Dad (Bob Maza) gets a steady job, Mum (Justine Saunders) moves the family to a Housing Commission home, and Trilby and her younger brother (Dennis Walker) get to go to school regularly, it really looks as if the Comeaways will pave the way for other families in the shanty-town to shift out of poverty into a brighter future. Uh-oh, things don’t turn out the way Trilby had hoped: the extended family arrives at the Comeaways’ new home and various relatives park themselves permanently on the furniture or the verandah and glue themselves to the TV set and in Mum’s make-up kit; the food and electricity bills shoot up without a corresponding increase in the family’s income; and Trilby’s parents have problems paying the rates on time. Unable to cope with the noise and the family’s financial problems on top of schoolwork, Trilby turns to a young bronco-rider (Ernie Dingo) for comfort and companionship but ends up falling pregnant to him. Eventually Dad deserts the family and everyone is forced to move back to the shanty-town shack.

Much of what happens to the Comeaways is played as gentle comedy which portrays starkly some of the problems and issues the family has to deal with. The members are able to bat and swat outright racial bullying in the streets and at school but racial discrimination doesn’t end there: when Mum and Dad have problems making ends meet, the town offers no help or guidance to them. Social isolation would appear to be a problem for Mum but apart from the appearance of a friendly neighbour who invites her to her place for afternoon tea the film skirts over this issue. The parents struggle with low self-esteem and trying to fit in with their white neighbours’ ways in spite of their poverty; at the same time, they’re obliged by their cultural background to share their house and possessions with their relatives who take advantage of them. The neighbours’ reactions to the Comeaways’ presence are difficult to fathom.

The acting is well done if minimal, in keeping with the film’s pared-down style. Characters tend to be resigned to their fate and restrained emotionally with only Trilby actively rebelling against the status and place predetermined by society for her and her people. The Comeaways accept their lowly lot in life but are always hopeful that one day things might improve. However, such improvement will come at a cost: in a scene near the end, when Mum tries to console Trilby after the birth of her child, she refers to the destruction of their native culture and knowledge – the possibility of reconciling material advancement with preserving First Nation cultures, values and knowledge isn’t entertained. This is probably the saddest moment in the film, not least because it indirectly leads to Trilby having to choose between staying with her people and accepting what they accept, and following her ambitions and ideals by going to the city. The climax when Trilby makes her decision and literally cuts her ties to her family and culture in the hospital’s toilet room is shocking and heartbreaking, though curiously the film continues with Trilby going home with her family and no-one saying anything; there are not even any subtitles to suggest that she might have stayed a bit longer in hospital for some psychiatric treatment.

Nehm is outstanding as Trilby who wants better for herself and for her family but comes under terrific pressure from both her own culture and the expectations of Western society; her performance in the women’s toilets scene is quiet and powerful, the character raising her arms as if in question or supplication and her appearance becomes almost Christ-like and sacrificial. (She sacrifices more than just a baby.) Saunders and Maza as Trilby’s parents provide comedy and drama in turns, and each is credible in both: Maza’s character is torn between the demands of his breadwinning role and his natural inclination to take things easy and have a good time, and Saunders’s Mum does the best she can keeping the family together with the limited knowledge and resources she has with a sunny though fatalistic outlook on life. Among their people, actions speak much louder than words: Maza’s scenes outside the Housing Commission office where he’s just about to pay his rent and where he gambles instead the money away, and the strain and guilt of his behaviour as these show on his face, are something to behold in this respect. A subplot beckons when a white teacher discovers Trilby’s young brother has artistic talent and gives him a sketchbook but doesn’t come to more than that.

The cinematography is beautiful and colourful, as might be expected in a movie where remote countryside is everywhere: the ambience of the town with its small shops and pubs is evident. Something of the small-minded outlook of the white townsfolk and the racial prejudice that exists is always present.

The ending calls for a sequel which would follow Trilby’s adventures in the city and how she copes with city life, particularly the psychological aspect of it, but to my knowledge this has never been made nor is it likely to be made. Viewers can be certain though that whatever happens to Trilby when she leaves the town, she will always remain a “fringe dweller”, never really at home in any society, including the one she was born into.

Unfortunately the film’s narrow focus on the Comeaways’ struggle personalises their problems to the level of neighbours and other people they have direct contact with, and says nothing about how racial discrimination and prejudice are institutional in their society. Discrimination is reduced to a matron at a hospital or a teacher or school student being nasty to the Comeaways but that’s all. But how did Trilby work out in the first place that being a strict nuclear family living in a house would be a way of breaking down the physical and psychological race barriers? Either someone taught this to her or she’s picked it up herself and rationalised the idea as the “ideal” way of living for her people if they are to advance socially. Seems like the one person most brainwashed and prejudiced against the worth of Aboriginal culture and its values is Trilby herself. In this respect, the film can be unintentionally patronising towards the people whose interests it aims to defend: it suggests that Australian Aboriginal and other First Nations people can overcome discrimination if they adopt the ways and the thinking of Western society but never offers the idea that Western society itself could learn something from these people’s cultures.

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