I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just because a film is familiar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a derivative loss. Ben Shackleford’s Centre Place has many rom-com-dramedy elements that we’ve seen before, but it’s all done with such polish, and refreshing lack of cynicism, that it manages to dodge the bullet of derivative familiarity.
Lizzie (Julia Markovski) is a Melbourne fashion boutique employee looking forward to a new life with her boyfriend, Simon (Patrick Constantinou), in Paris. When she’s not being casually abused by the verbal barrage of her boss Jo (Alison Whyte), she’s trying (and failing) to sell pieces of her art at the local cafe. Really, everything in her life but her relationship with Simon seems to be a bit of a downer, which is why it is that much more damaging when Simon dumps her just shy of their move.
Lost in life, Lizzie turns to her bit-of-a-screw-up brother Cameron (Jay Bowen), who promptly attempts to cheer her up by cooking her dinner, only to burn down her apartment. Now sans relationship and a home, Lizzie finds herself faced with the sudden drama of past love James Ballintyne (Sullivan Stapleton) showing up in town, and the return of an estranged father (John Waters) looking to make amends. On top of that, she still works in a drab fashion boutique that doesn’t seem to ever make a sale due to the monochromatic nature of the clothes.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on and, if you’ve seen any romantic comedies in your life, you can probably figure how things are going to turn out; the story is anything but unpredictable. But it is done well, and the performances of all the leads are what makes this film better than the nature of its tale.
While Julia Markovski’s Lizzie is obviously the heroine of our tale, it was Alison Whyte’s Jo that really impressed. Whyte plays the character with a casual disregard for anyone’s feelings but her own, and at times seems almost too emotionally distant to be human, but the performance manages to draw you in. Jo’s got layers, dammit, and for a secondary character in a romantic comedy, that’s saying something.
But it’s not just Alison Whyte that impresses. Jay Bowen’s Cameron pulls off the screw-up brother well while keeping it out of caricature range, Sullivan Stapleton’s James somehow makes me sympathetic to a guy who is five seconds away from being Russell Crowe in a wide-shot and, coming back around, Julie Markovski’s Lizzie plays young woman in life turmoil with all the realistic strengths and weaknesses of someone who has suddenly lost everything.
You don’t stick around Centre Place for the story, you stick around for the characters. With lesser performances it would just be another by-the-numbers rom-com in a pile of indistinct rom-coms. As it is, it’s a surprisingly polished little gem among the romantic rubble.
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