It's too often that you hear about films that are before their time, or too late. Just as Australia's current coalition government nominated Scott Morrison as their poster-boy leader; a man who has a boat-shaped sculpture in his office that proclaims "I stopped these"; a movie embracing humanity and community like “The Merger” is right on time.
When a small town AFL footy club – Bodgy Creek Roosters - is facing closure or worse, a merger, a former town hero Troy “Town Killer” Carrington (Callinan) - now boutique winemaking weirdo - offers to take the coaching reins. Despite the initial rejection, his plan to lobby for additional funding to keep the club afloat by hiring migrants, forces out club president, Bull (John Howard) and challenges the town to open their hearts.
“The Merger,” writer/star Damian Callinan’s adaptation of his one-man show of the same name, uses the ethos of one of the seminal American television shows in this century, “Friday Night Lights,” and uses football to hold up a mirror to modern Australian society - in all its ridiculous, beautiful and infuriating contradictions. “The Merger” started its life as Callinan’s travelling stage show, through local communities before gaining steam and reputation to garner larger city venues and audiences. Grentell - the man behind “Backyard Ashes” - saw the play and said, this has to be a film. Callinan and director Mark Grentell make sure to make sure that you’re laughing while they want you to learn. Grentell takes the tried and tested the concept of the misfit underdogs and infuses the team bonding and growth element with the collision of the drama of a footy club in peril with the human drama of permanent conflict/oppression inspiring rolling the dice on travelling across the world to start life again. “The Merger,” asks the Australian audience to confront its own selective civil rights after the bludgeoning of dominant media toes the line with conservative fear mongering; like a permission slip for mass apathy. At its very best, hilarious bonding sessions featuring poetry, crafts and science experiments can make you cackle and hit you with those “Remember the Titans” feels.
The comedy has a broad quality. Callinan’s observations of cute cultural difference and parochial rural racism are delivered like a sledgehammer. The inevitability of certain relationships and sentimentality is laid on thick. The many affectations of these quirky back-water characters are often distracting from their refugee counterparts. The sporting sequences (especially as the team gets better) suffer in their clunky execution. “The Merger” is flawed, yes, but that doesn't seem to diminish its messy charm. Fayssal Bazzi’s performance as Sayyid is the highlight of the film. Bazzi allows the traumatic reality of seeking asylum to bear on the film, all the while beaming with positivity and sporting heroics.
Callinan and Kate Mulvany’s Angie anchor, the oddballs, played like young Neil (Rafferty Grierson) and Carpet Burn (Angus McLaren).
In a country that is as sports-obsessed as Australia, the widely consumed sports movie rarely cuts through. “The Merger” does what the very best sports films do; reflects what is cultural, socially and politically relevant.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.