Stories that reflect Australia’s embrace of multiculturalism are, thankfully, more common place on cinema screens these days, but more than 20 years ago the same could hardly be said and a piece like Michael Jenkins’s The Heartbreak Kid (1993) emerged as a breath of fresh air. The film stands the test of time in two respects: firstly in that it provides enlightenment of deeply rooted culturally relevant issues – streamlined though they may be – whilst simultaneously maximising chances for a feel good hit in the very commercial appeal attached to it.
Plucked from obscurity, 18 year-old Alex Dimitriades was chosen for the role of Nick Polides, a headstrong, volatile student with grand aspirations of making it big as a stud on the soccer field. Sadly, at his Melbourne high school little progress is being made in abetting those dreams, for he’s unable to even convince the staff to resurrect the notion of a representative soccer team. In a climate ruled by an ingrained religious devotion to Aussie Rules, soccer comes off as an impoverished second cousin long excluded from this particular school’s curriculum. Nick seethes when confronted by the embodiment of this attitude in Mr. Southgate (William McInnes), the footy coach who early on is pitched forward as an all too-obvious adversary; he’s the most vocal dissenting voice in the staff room, a crowd of one rallying against the intrusion into his playground of a game demeaningly referred to – by the community at large at that time – as ‘wog ball’.
Luckily for Nick, a guardian angel steps in to fill the breach in the form of young teacher Christina Papadopoulos (Claudia Karvan) who senses that Nick’s misplaced anger might best be redirected into more productive outlets. Brushing aside the mocking laughter of her fellow staff members, she puts her hand up to coach a hastily assembled soccer team whilst admitting, in the same breath, to not possessing a skerrick of knowledge about the game. But with the cocksure Nick as her guiding hand, she’s able to at least set the wheels of change in motion.
Nick is won over by Christina’s noble decision to stand up for his motley crew of ethnic outcasts. But in the course of their combined efforts to form a cohesive sporting unit, deeper feelings develop. His attraction to Christina begins its pubescent conversion from the lusty fantasies associable with a schoolboy’s crush to serious consideration of Christina as “his girl”. Impropriety aside, he may be just deluding himself. Certainly Nick’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of her would scare off most women, but for Christina – not much older than her students at 22 and still able to relate to their fickle crushes – negating external factors begin to take their toll, alleviating the implausibility of the scenario.
She can certainly relate to the overpowering parental control that Nick is hardly alien to – the type that suffocates with good intentions but leaves precious little leeway for personal freedom to flourish. Raised to respect and adhere to her parents’ wishes, Christina has her life plotted out on a circumscribed path, including a pre-determined husband-to-be, Dimitri (Steve Bastoni). There’s even a model home chosen for her by Dimitri without any consultation that offers little room to breathe, being right across the street from her parents’ home! Having another decision taken out of her hands adds to the sense of subtle manipulation; it’s a façade of compliance as honour, the kind with a firm foothold in tradition, but which the free-willed Christina must reduce to old-world memories if she’s ever going to become her own woman.
Karvan is terrific in this early role that followed her initial breakthrough in The Big Steal (1990). She has that intriguing youthful mix of fresh-faced beauty and yet with the hint of a tomboy in her short hair and ability to pull off a fetching run over a muddy playing field in skimpy shorts and a soccer jersey.
It’s a very physical performance from Dimitriades, in more ways than one; early on he’s a ball of energy, unable to suppress his outrage at the school’s denial of a soccer team. In this way, he’s also living in the shadow of his father George (Nick Lathouris) who once played for the Greek national team. The innate pressure associated with fulfilling parental expectations is a universal one but it has special connotations with those of ethnic minorities in Australian society where the weight of overcoming an implied racial mistrust is ever present.
Jenkins, who jointly adapted the screenplay with the author of the original play, Robert Barrett, does a decent job of relaying how these pressures come to bear on both Nick and Christina. Funnily enough, he’s never made another feature, working exclusively in TV ever since. There’s an element of manipulation and cliché as to how the relationships are pushed to the edge of fragmentation, but the issues they raise have hardly lost their relevance.
It’s fascinating to watch Nick’s perspective alter as his schoolboy crush takes on more meaningful proportions. For a while he just sees Christina as an idyllic object of privilege, the ones not afforded him; an unattainable goddess representative of his cultural ties to both Australia and his ancestry. For Christina, Nick himself may seem unrefined, but she’s attracted to his impulsive, giddily unpredictable nature; a young man yet to explore his potential but equally moved by the prospect of passion as pain. Raw and rebellious, he represents an unlikely outlet to release her stresses, and a polar opposite to the calculating, money-obsessed Dimitri. If her feelings were based on little more than unleashing some suppressed sexual frustration then their relationship would be doomed to a spectacular but swift end. Slowly however, Christina has to put aside the distracting fact of Nick’s youth to understand the reasons she’s really attracted to him and address whether he has any of the qualities she really desires in a man.
And what of the moral implications of a teacher engaging in sexual relations with one of her students? Well, there’s certainly a murky area of grey to consider here, though it doesn’t draw a whole lot of attention other than from Nick’s dad who is appropriately disconsolate at the thought of such a strict moral breach. We can assume that most people have few qualms about such a relationship when the ages of those involved are so close, but what a different light might have been shed on these trysts had the sexual roles been reversed? The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly hot and heavy though it’s hard to know how seriously to take the exultant choral music overlaid across the first of them. Both actors are game however and because of that fact, The Heartbreak Kid mostly defies the juvenile associations of its title. Hopefully it will be remembered as a piece of slick entertainment that also provides some valuable commentary and insights into the rapidly changing makeup of Australian society.