SBS keeps the summer treats comin’….
The Family Law is warm, awkward and quintessentially Australian. Its key point of difference to similar coming of age nostalgia tales (The Wonder Years, Beautiful People) is that it it told from a Chinese-Australian perspective and is set on Queensland’s Sunshine coast.
Based on Benjamin Law’s book of the same name, this has had something of a modern update. No longer set in the 1990s, it has a present-day upgrade yet is deliberately surrounded in costumes, props and locations that feel like a decade ago.
14 year old Benjamin (Trystan Go) portrays the young Law (blink and you will miss the author’s appearance as an extra), who -like most teens- is embarrassed by his own family.
“For a long time I thought mum didn’t fit in because she was Chinese,” he says, “Then I realised she was just mum.”
Benjamin aspires to more than his middle-class status. After all he can play a mean clarinet, has a knack for manipulating adults and is a far more free spirited than the affluent neighbours across the road, the Thompsons.
But as a 14 year old middle-child, it’s kind of hard to rise above your station. Keeping him in his place is mum Jenny (Fiona Choi), dad Danny (Anthony Brandon Wong), big brother Andrew (George Zhao), big sister Candy (Shuang Hu) and sisters Tammy (Karina Lee) and Michelle (Vivian Wei).
Chinese-born Jenny rules the Law house with her exuberant personality, forever speaking her mind however inappropriately. But she is notoriously short-tempered and struggles to keep up with wealthy ex-Chinese socialites. Jenny is also frequently locking horns with husband Danny who is so busy running the Happy Dragon restaurant that he neglects his role at home.
In the first episode Benji has his sights set on a school talent quest with friend Melissa (Bethany Whitmore), who dons a pair of old-fashioned leg braces and suffers from a pigeon phobia. But there is some serious competition from the Thompsons and dad Danny isn’t sure he can leave work to attend the big night.
The rift between mother and father reaches a crisis when Jenny throws Danny out of the house -a turning point that will underpin the first season. Dealing with separation becomes a learning curve for our young optimist.
Wedging a hefty slice of East meets West humour into a hot Aussie summer, The Family Law breezes along. At one point Benji teaches his mother the meaning of the word ‘Deadbeat’ whilst he is sewing a costume, and the mother-son relationship forms the heart of this series. Trystan Go is outstanding as the goofy but loveable young Law, while Fiona Choi brings dark humour to her role. The script by Benjamin Law and Marieke Hardy directed by Jonathan Brough, is joyfully awkward from start to finish (I was pleased it was spartan in narration). Designer Roslyn Durnford has done a splendid job of cluttered kitsch without rooting this into a specific time period.
There are hints of Benji’s emerging sexuality -he spies on hunky neighbour Klaus (Takaya Honda) without really understanding why and he brushes off female interest. More of this is expected to develop as the series progresses.
I had a bit of difficulty reading a few English subtexts against white backgrounds but the two episodes I viewed were an impressive debut for a writer as young as Law.
The Sunshine Coast may be perfect one day, embarrassing the next. After all how can you not love a series with a local talent agent named Beryl Streep?
The Family Law premieres 8:30pm Thursday January 14 on SBS (Facebook premiere 5pm Friday Jan 8)