This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here.
Watching Chocolate Oyster, my first thought is: ‘Ugh, he says “like” an annoying number of times.’
Closely followed by: ‘Wait, do I do that?’
Steve Jaggi’s independent film provides a glimpse into the lives of Bondi millennials slowly coming to terms with their own mediocrity. Chocolate Oyster follows the separate lives of two young women Ellie (Anna Lawrence) and Taylor (Rosie Lourde), who enter the film ensconced in the belief that hard work and ‘wanting it enough’ are enough to succeed.
Bolstered by the drive to achieve something, both women try to find a place for themselves despite not possessing the means to get there. They experience this paradox across the continuum of millenial activity, be it at uncomfortable dinner parties and gallery exhibitions, bumming durries off strangers behind nightclubs and giving blowjobs in public bathrooms.
Jaggi explores this duality of life in Sydney’s eastern suburbs from an observational standpoint. While undeniably steeped in the cafe-hopping culture of privilege and affluence synonymous with this part of the city, Chocolate Oyster also mocks the fragility of this bubble. Ellie and Taylor are precariously balanced on the edge of the shiny, Instagram-worthy life they believe they belong to, while simultaneously navigating unsympathetic landlords and trading off between being able to afford petrol or groceries for the week. It is a film which forces any millennial movie-goer into welcomed moments of introspection.
At first glance, this sheltered-girl-gets-a-reality-check trope seems tired and overdone. But a closer look at Jaggi’s approach adds depth to its otherwise simplistic premise.
Take, for example, the opening sequence of Ellie grabbing lunch with her boyfriend. Immediately, we question the director’s choice of black and white cinematography. The nostalgia it evokes seems at odds with the essential modernity of millennial life, a rift accentuated by ever-pervasive phone interruptions (“Is that you or me?”). The inescapable eye of the fixed camera shot provides a fly-on-the-wall look at this innocuous setting, and represents Jaggi’s aim to present life stripped of the frills and fanfare of mainstream film.
It is precisely through this indulgence of the mundane that the audience picks up on subtle shifts in characterisation, as the protagonists realise that the real world does not mirror their mollycoddled upbringing.
This transformation is slow, met with resistance and self-righteous indignation, but it is inevitable. Taylor, for instance, is an aspiring dancer who is passed over time and again in favour of someone more agile, more flexible, or more talented. Through the course of the film, she is forced to contemplate, and eventually accept, that perhaps dedication and spunk just aren’t enough. And as we see her mature, we mourn this loss of innocence with her.
Jaggi offers a fleeting look at themes of disability and religion, but treats the issues with the shallowness one would expect from its Gen Y characters. We are granted a moment of poignancy upon Ellie’s reflection that Digby Webster’s art, inspired by the social exclusion he experiences due to Down Syndrome, echoes her feelings of inexplicable loneliness. But this window is small. Jaggi should be credited for not putting forward yet another frustratingly reductive portrayal of young people as incapable of engaging in deeper thought, yet one cannot help but feel as if this cursory treatment of the matter is a missed opportunity to give nuance to the millennial experience. Perhaps it is too much to ask that these questions be not only raised but answered in a mere 75 minutes.
Chocolate Oyster encapsulates Taylor and Ellie’s struggles to be taken seriously by a world intent on reducing them to vapid twenty-somethings, who squander their hard-earned waitressing and bartending money on smashed avocado. Far from painting a romantic picture of booze and debauchery, Jaggi presents his protagonists as pushed up against the unyielding wall of reality. Armed only with a chisel, Ellie and Taylor must carve out their own place in the world, because nobody else will.