Here’s the movie the Mildura tourism industry has been anticipating for years: a sumptuously shot postcard drama about a romance between a fair dinkum orange grower and a traveling antipodean who soak up the sights, smells and juices of this quaint and picturesque Victorian town.

Writer/director Richard Gray’s unassuming story is told largely from the perspective of Heidi (Rachael Taylor) an American violinist hitchhiker (there’s a combo you don’t get all that often) thumbing her way to her father’s funeral. Presumably she hasn’t seen Wolf Creek.

Michael (Alex Dimitriades) picks Heidi up in his orange-stacked ute and the two gradually connect. Gray makes it crystal clear that Michael isn’t motivated by carnal instincts, unlike the other horny oafs scattered about the place – the driver who makes a pass at Heidi in the film’s opening moments, the two rowdy blokes at the pub.

There is an understated elegance to the performances in Summer Coda. Taylor and Dimitriades’ steady-as-she-goes style slowly breathes life into the two central characters and their relationship seems to grow organically from a screenplay that makes gentle inquiries about their pasts, their dreams for the future, the small bits one usually gets to learn with time. There’s nothing particularly interesting or complex about either Heidi or Michael but they’re both likable personalities, and that counts for something.

Greg De Marigny’s cinematography is beautiful, at times exquisite. The screen has a UV soaked sheen and an orange summer time tinge.

The storyline drifts along at its own leisure, stopping to smell the roses – or fruit, as the case may be – so plot momentum is never part of the equation. There is a nice ebb and flow to the narrative and the light touches of editor Gary Woodyard feed into the film’s pleasant aura, but Gray relies two much on the presence of his characters and their surroundings and too little on interesting scripting.

Summer Coda is cut from the same cloth as a seemingly endless genre of well meaning and well shot Australian dramas (recent additions include The Tree and Beautiful Kate) for which the standard critical response to filmmakers is more or less cut and paste: give us more story, better developed plots and resist the urge to cut to trees and plants and the aesthetic pleasures synonymous with Australian landscapes.

Few character-based films are strong enough to withstand airy storylines. The common consequence is a film that feels vague and dramatically wishy-washy, as is the case with Summer Coda. This is soul-searching drama, as much about the characters trying to find and nourish theirs as the film’s struggle for the same cause.

Summer Coda’s Australian theatrical release date: November 4, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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