Series 7

This film actually came out at the beginning of the year, and I avoided it, thinking it was just a cheap hipster bust on reality TV. Then last week it played at the local rep theatre, so I caught it - and I'm glad I did. For the record, it is a (not so) cheap hipster bust on reality TV, but it's a lot smarter and a lot more engaging than I thought it would be. (I was also reminded that it was filmed before Survivor hit the US airwaves.)

The film takes the form of a reality game show - "next, after these messages" plugs and all - called The Contenders. The show's gimmick: six Americans are chosen randomly, given guns, and have to kill each other off until there's only one left standing. That one collects the game's only prize - his life - and proceeds on to another game. The grand prize - after three successful games - is freedom.

In this particular "episode", returning champion Dawn (Brooke Smith), a pregnant social misfit who takes no prisoners, is on the verge of her third and final game. To obtain her freedom, she is sent to her home town to defend her title against 5 locals - one of whom happens to be her old high school boyfriend (Glenn Fitzgerald), dying of cancer. This arrangement is, of course, not exactly coincidental.

Series 7 could have been a shallow exercise, its target too obvious, its reference point too smug. Why does it work? In spite of his own satire (which veers, slightly amateurishly, between dead-on disturbing and plain silly), writer/director Daniel Minahan has concocted a compelling story filled with fascinating characters, all well-played by a cast of unknowns. I also heard that Minahan had some experience working on reality TV programs, which would explain the strikingly real feeling of his "show".

This is one film that might actually gain impact on a small TV screen. It's violent, but there is a point, even if it's a little overplayed at times. However, it's the performances that make the film worthwhile: Smith and Fitzgerald are pitch-perfect, but the real breakout performance is by Connie Trabucco as a middle-aged Catholic nurse with a talent for murder. She could be your neighbor. She's awesome.