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Dairy Tale

The price of watching The Price of Milk is a dangerous overdose of whimsy.

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It's always dangerous, when describing a film, to label it as "whimsical." For one thing, it's often hard to get a bead on what exactly that means. Then, once you get some idea, you realize that it generally means either a) a movie that's trying to be funny but isn't, b) a movie filled with "sophisticated" references that'll make philistines feel superior when they get them, c) a comedy that doesn't involve a single joke about being hit in the face with something, or d) an excuse for filmic surrealism.

Every one of those explanations works, to a point, when you're talking about The Price of Milk, though the movie is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Directed by New Zealand comedian Harry Sinclair (Topless Women Talk About Their Lives), the story was essentially made up as shooting progressed, in a form of improvisation that is, apparently, the director's signature style. Unlike, say, Mike Leigh, however, who also uses improvisational techniques to construct his films, Sinclair does no pre-production whatsoever, thus eliminating such troublesome concepts as "character arcs" and "narrative consistency." Although the idea of a script created without the Syd Field three-act structure may sound appealing to those who've overdosed on studio fare, even such viewers may start longing for logic at a certain point, and it isn't there -- though the movie remains watchable simply because it's impossible to predict what will happen next. That, and because it has a game cast who seem ready for anything.

The film's opening is promising enough: several shots of cows staring directly into the camera, against the large green hills of New Zealand. From there, we enter the bedroom of our protagonists, Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Rob (Karl Urban). They're both trying to sleep, and he keeps hogging the covers. And as the quilt gets pulled back and forth, the opening credits unfold, sewn into the folds of the cloth. It's unlikely that opening credits have ever been this creative on such a small budget.

Rob and Lucinda are quickly established as being wildly in love and, as yet, uninterested in children. He's a dairy farmer who owns a large number of cows; thus, they live out in the country, where there's lots of grazing space. They also own an agoraphobic dog that scampers around covered with a box at all times. This is the first warning sign of excessive whimsy. The second? That would be the scene in which Rob and Lucinda take a bath in a tub that's in the middle of a field; she licks his toes and they both do the dishes in the bathwater. Magical realism is one thing, but why would they haul the tub out there? And why would they also haul the dishes outside to rinse in bathwater, when they have a perfectly good kitchen sink? There's also the matter of Lucinda collecting baby shoes for no particular reason, though they happen to serve a crucial plot point later on in the film.

One day, on the way to the local store, Lucinda runs over what appears to be an old woman in a fake beard. Only slightly disgruntled by the collision, this mysterious senior walks away with the warning: "Just remember -- keep warm!" Lucinda immediately interprets this as a sign that her relationship may be in trouble, despite no evidence that it actually is, save the unsubstantiated speculation of her pothead "friend" Drosophila (yes, a character named after a fruit fly -- this fullfills the "sophisticated references" requirement mentioned earlier), played by Willa O'Neill, who crashes her car so frequently while stoned that it's starting to look like one of the creations of actor/auto decorator Dennis Woodruff.

Later that night, Lucinda and Rob's quilt is mysteriously stolen by a gang of Maori golfers, who are able to appear and disappear at will. When Rob doesn't act appropriately upset over the loss, Lucinda takes it as a sign that their imminent nuptials may be doomed. Once again receiving dubious advice from Drosophila, Lucinda decides that a fight will kickstart their passion, so she drives a bulldozer out into the cow pasture, with a glass of beer in the scoop. Right as Rob sees her, she deliberately drops the beer. Surprisingly, this doesn't infuriate him; rather, it causes him, like us, to worry about Lucinda's sanity. In response, Lucinda dives into a vat of milk. This makes Rob mad, and leads to great sex.

But the real narrative thrust of the story, if indeed it can be claimed that there is any, comes when Lucinda discovers that her quilt is now in the possession of "Auntie" (Rangi Motu), the old woman she ran over, whose nephews are the mysterious Maori golfers. After failing to steal the quilt back, Lucinda trades all of Rob's cows for it, hoping the inevitable fight will lead to some truly wondrous bumping and grinding beneath the recovered blanket. Instead, Rob loses his voice and runs away. With a wedge driven solidly between the two, Drosophila decides to move in on the vulnerable Rob.

The Price of Milk is designed to evoke fairy tales, and several of the events in the story are familiar: There's the one about the young man who goes to sleep in a strange house and wakes up to find that someone has provided for him; there's the girl who cried a river (or a bathtub) and the girl who has to give up seeing her prince again in order to save his life; and there's even a strange inversion of the story of the princess and the pea. But fairy tales work because the characters in them have plain motivations that people can relate to. Auntie, who serves as a combination of mysterious beggar, spirit guide, and wicked old witch, is so capricious that it's impossible to understand her. She seems to be the one making everything happen, but why? She dismisses the notion of seeking vengeance after she's run over, saying that it happens all the time -- then proceeds to torment Lucinda -- then suddenly takes her side, for no reason. For the record, this sort of thing is the problem with making stuff up as you go along.

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