Friday, 18 December 2009


Written and Directed by Philip Spink, 1995, Canada
Peter Piper is a poor kid, oblivious to having one of the worst hairstyles since the kid in "Elvis! Elvis!" He also doesn’t care about wearing his sister’s cast-offs. And after all, it’s the Sixties and the moon landing is just ahead. But when his family adopt a Native American boy, Sam, the two kids plan a trip to the moon of their own. Subjected to bad fashion, terrible dental retainers and bullying, Peter lives in the shadow of an older brother who died in service, his mother’s Socialism and liberal outlook - which seem to spring as much from desperation and necessity as philosophy - and his father’s silent grief and his various sisters.

A highly endearing, modest little Canadian children’s film that might perhaps baffle younger kids with its social context - which will win over many adults for its knowing observations and hints - but provides much to enjoy for those kids that get it, if only for its smooth jumps into empathy and magic realism. If the sudden leap into fantasy undermined much of Martha Coolidge’s "Three Wishes" domestic build-up, "Once in a Blue Moon" moves with seamless movements from childhood poverty to imaginative interpretation: a power station becomes a base for martians to complete building earth and neatly embodies the detached presence of Peter’s father (the martians and dad wear the same outfits!); an monstrous hand casually supplies tools for Peter to build with; a trip to the dentist becomes a hilarious daydream in which doctors and the military praise robot-boy Peter’s superiority. Peter’s wild imagination is not one that turns in upon itself with destructive consequences, as with Seth Dove in "The Reflecting Skin"; it does not propose mental disturbance as in "Afraid of the Dark". Rather, it is something pure and far more aligned with the American Dream; the moon missions of both the USA and Peter and Sam are paralleled to obvious meaning, most of all the search for wonder and transcendence. But that it incorporates ethnic minorities ~ the adopted kids and the neighbours, most obviously ~ without ever raising the issue of racism offers a generous, optimistic vision of The American Dream. Sam the Indian kid even tells Peter that his father is Elvis at one point. It is concerned with unfairness, but not ugliness.

The film possesses a strong feminine streak, in that it is Peter and Sam that bear the greatest imaginations and the most feminine hairstyles. Peter eventually succumbs to depression when his hairstyle brings him one too many accusations of being a girl ~ and his masculinity eventually becomes Sam’s greatest challenge. Yet men are largely absent under the wealth of strong female figures of all ages, most prominently Peter’s mother and wonderful deaf but resourceful sister. Although benign, Peter’s father is a silent, slightly ominous figure, wrapped in his own grief for a lost son and hiding behind work and a wielder’s mask. Although the feminine is a strong presence, it is up to Peter to fill the blank space that is masculinity.

Cody Serpa as Peter Piper carries the whole story of one boy’s search for identity with a winning, smart performance. Underneath Peter's long-term, pretty clever and amusing plan of humiliation for those that bully him, there’s a wealth of themes. The film has plenty to say about gender, poverty, disability, the growth of feminism, grief and patriotism, as well as the portrait of the artist as a young boy. The turning point is the trip to the cinema, in which displaced Sam talks about his past, and then Sam is humiliated before the whole audience of peers, mistaken for a girl, watched by a giant Hitchcockian eye on the screen. There are also nods to "The Wizard of Oz" and "2001 a space odyssey" which will surely pass over the heads of a young audience. With a brand new conventional hairstyle, signalling a maturity or choice of individuality, the lapses into magic-realism slow down. It is up to Sam to carry on the torch of unashamed childish imagination whilst Peter battles to assert himself. Loaded with little surprises and excellent performances all round, "Once in a Blue Moon" is an intelligent and rewarding entry into the genre, pushing at its boundaries yet still maintaining an engaging modesty. As it has to, it all ends bittersweetly, with the magic realism of life and cinema re-established for the adult world.

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