Sarah Spillane's new film Around the Block will be available worldwide via DVD and VOD outlets on August 5th. It's currently playing at Los Angeles' Arena Cinema for the first week of August. It's also in select theaters in Spillane's home country of Australia.
The film depicts life down under in Spillane's birth city of Sydney. She focuses on a white American teacher, played by Christina Ricci whose character of Dino Chalmers is trying to make a difference in the inner-city suburb of Redfern. She gets a class of Aboriginal teenagers to perform Shakespeare's Hamlet with her lead being Liam Wood, a 16-year-old Aborigine who has a talent for dancing and acting. Unfortunately, his future is threatened when he gets in trouble with the law and police.
Spillane was herself a teacher in Redfern from 2001 to 2005 at an Aboriginal arts college where she instructed students of all ages, including teenagers. She wrote the screenplay in 2004 after learning about a real-life Aboriginal teen who also got into trouble with the law and police.
In February 2004, an Aboriginal teen died as a result of a police chase. This intensified the already existing, racial tensions between the Aborigines and the whites in Australia. Riots even broke out in Redfern soon after. The incident mirrors many deaths of young African-American men as the result of police encounters or chases.
Recent films, such as Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station and Lofty Nathan's 12 O'Clock Boys, demonstrate that the issue of young, black men dying needlessly as a result of police encounters is still very relevant. However, Spillane's film has this racial tension rippling in the background, or on the side. Her aim is more to take a step back and not focus on the specific incident, but rather examine the neighborhood and show the situation, which lead to the racial tensions, or the needless death, much in the same way Spike Lee did in Do the Right Thing (1989).
Spillane is at the same time a huge fan of Shakespeare's Hamlet and considers the fictional Prince of Denmark to be one of the greatest characters ever created. It wasn't enough that her teacher protagonist instructs the tragic play. Spillane also used the plot and the figure of Hamlet as a template here. The Aboriginal teen named Liam gets pulled into a revenge plot as the result of the loss of his father. Shakespeare's Hamlet is similarly pulled into a revenge plot as the result of the loss of his father.
However, Spillane thought Hamlet was so complicated a character that it might be interesting to bifurcate him and have Hamlet be embodied as not one but two Aboriginal brothers. Thus, Liam Wood and his brother Steve Wood were born. Steve, the older brother, is the one bound by honor and duty. He is pulled into revenge because he doesn't recognize his freedom to do anything else, whereas Liam, the younger brother, is not as bound. He resists the pull into revenge because he does recognize his potential to be free of such trappings that reinforce the cycle of poverty and violence, or even racial tension.
Mark Coles Smith plays Steve Wood as the more aggressive, more frustrated and angrier half of Spillane's Shakespearean split. Coles-Smith just oozes raw sex appeal and danger. It would have been interesting to see more from him. Apparently, his character is older and out of school but still lives at home. Yet, it's likely he makes his money illegally, probably like his father, but we never see this, so there could have been more exploration of Steve's life, as was done in Sally El Hosaini's My Brother the Devil.
Hunter Page-Lochard plays Liam Wood and he is the true standout here. The first time he's seen, he's dancing beautifully, and clearly the camera loves him, as Spillane's camera-within-a-camera proves. He doesn't really draw your attention though until he delivers the iconic "To be, or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet.
Up until this point, much is said about how Aboriginal youth or people wouldn't be interested or even capable of doing Shakespeare. This is reflective of real-life racism that Spillane said she witnessed or was told directly. She knew that it wasn't true and the Aboriginal actors who came to audition for the role were her evidence.
Spillane was impressed with young men like Braydn Pittman who auditioned for the role of Liam and nailed it. When she asked Pittman how he managed it, he said that it was because he knew and loved hip hop music. Ironically, Spillane had known that hip hop was going to be an entry way to the Shakespeare material. It's why she incorporated it into the script.
There is a scene where her teacher character Dino Chalmers sits Liam and the other students down. She relates Shakespeare's poetic dialogue to the rhythm and poetry of hip hop or rap artists. Specifically, Tupac Shakur is brought up. Spillane introduces Page-Lochard with an opening dance number to hip hop music. Her music composer Nick Wales worked with Page-Lochard to create the song for that number. Page-Lochard contributed by coming up with rap lyrics himself.
Aside from the hip hop and African-American influences, one scene called for Page-Lochard to really embrace his Aboriginal roots, eschewing modern culture for a moment. Spillane said it was her best day out of the 20 filming days. They were at Magic Point on the Australian coast during a beautiful morning overlooking the ocean. Page-Lochard strips off his shirt and drops to his knees. He grabs the Earth and digs into the dirt. He paints his head and torso with what looks like chalk to show his one-ness with nature. He then stomps and dances in a very spiritual, Aboriginal dance. It's very reminiscent of Native Americans or other Indigenous cultures. Spillane used Page-Lochard to help choreograph that moment atop the cliff.
This is Page-Lochard's first leading role in a feature, but Spillane had come to trust the now 21-year-old who was probably 19 or so when they were filming. Spillane said Page-Lochard brought such maturity and understanding of life and of the material to the film.