“I think the world could end and this city would go on unchanged,” says Eli (Brendan Maclean) staring out the car window, driving down Adelaide’s wide arterial roads. The sun sets, casting an orange glow over the flat suburbia. Lights path into the car unobstructed by apartment buildings and hills. The car moves calmly and steadily. This is not a city of traffic.
The family at the heart of Fucking Adelaide – a six-part series out now on ABC iview, stylised as F*!#ing Adelaide – is, like many families from Adelaide, split over state and national lines. Eli lives in Sydney; older sister Emma (Kate Box), in Thailand. The youngest, Kitty (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), has stayed in Adelaide in her childhood bedroom, while she attends art school. “Adelaide actually has a lot to offer now,” she retorts to Eli, with all of the conviction of someone desperately trying to make herself believe what she’s saying.
Creator and director Sophie Hyde never shows us Adelaide city, yet it is a story undeniably of Adelaide, seen only the way locals can. Adelaide is in the skateboarding down wide, empty suburban streets; the sandstone-fronted houses; the backyard bonfires; the way Kitty wears the city, literally, in the jewellery of Naomi Murrell, in the scarves of Julie White.
“Fucking Adelaide,” the characters like to remark – a police siren wailing when they think they are alone; last night’s anonymous date at the cafe they just walked in to. Adelaide is quiet; it is not a city for hiding in.
I grew up in Adelaide, and have left and returned multiple times. It can be a difficult city: the two degrees of separation; the way you’re pigeon-holed; the length of grudges; the way every time you move back you fall out of professional circles interstate. But it’s also a city of intense relationships; of young lives that circle around those backyard bonfires; of a life that is cheaper and easier and slower than those on the east coast.
Fucking Adelaide has at its centre a homecoming. Mother Maude (Pamela Rabe) is selling the family home, and it’s time for the children to clean up. This return to childhood homes is a well-trodden story, but the complexities of Adelaide’s relationship with its young people adds poignancy – over 3,000 people aged between 24 and 30 leave South Australia each year.
Hyde never makes a note of this figure, but it sits over the series like a cloud: Adelaide is a city people leave. Yet while Kitty tries to convince herself of her love for Adelaide, Hyde’s own love of the city is undeniable.
There is a charming oddity to the series. Bryon Mason’s cinematography and editing is clean and crisp, casting an often calm eye over the family, mimicking the gentle stillness of Adelaide’s suburbs. Over this is laid a strange vocal sound track (composition by Mario Späte), perhaps of ghosts or internal thoughts, buoyant and comic. “I’m sorry I called Adelaide a shithole,” Eli says into Kitty’s barricaded door. “Shithole,” the eerie voices harmonise.
Each episode focuses on a different family member, exploring their relationship to each other but also to Adelaide. Eli wishes he could leave again; Emma’s husband Toby (Beau Travis Williams), whose American accent divulges a lack of history with the city, begins to wish he could stay.
In this structural approach, the six-part series is strongest in episode three, with its focus on the relationship between Emma and Maude. There is a grounded steadiness Hyde is able to bring out in the performances of Box and Rabe, outshining their younger co-stars – so much is said in eyes lingering on faces, in short huffs, in distracted bodies.
The final episode splinters off in a new direction – no longer a story about home, it becomes a story about death. Hyde treats this topic with tenderness, almost 14 minutes given over to a single shot: an unflinching focus on a family working out how to hold themselves together. Mason’s camera work is clean, only adjusting the focus almost imperceptibly to bring our eye to different parts of the scene, different characters in grief.
As a standalone work, this episode is a beautiful and ambitious story. Yet as a conclusion to Fucking Adelaide, it sacrifices too much. Hyde weaves big stories through the series, and their strength lies in the ways they are slipped into the quietness – stories of children trying to navigate gender; of queer and messy families; of past scars and secrets and domestic violence. In trying to make the story bigger, the story is diminished – a story of a relationship with a hometown is eclipsed and Adelaide and all of her strange suburbia is left behind.
It’s a rare person who stays in Adelaide. Some people leave and never come back, always looking towards Adelaide with a scoff; some wish they could return but can’t forgo the opportunities a bigger city can provide; some do come back, happy to be home. Then there is the rest of us – unmoored, not sure if our lives will unfold in Adelaide or out of her. Always wanting to stay, always wanting to escape; always wanting to come home, always happy to have left.
Hyde looks at Adelaide as an insider, quiet and studied. The first five episodes show us Adelaide’s universalities and specificities. But in the final episode, she loses sight of the particular, of a story of the tug and pull of hometowns that hasn’t been told before on Australian television. Like so many things, like so many people, Fucking Adelaide finally seems to think Adelaide is not quite enough.
• Fucking Adelaide is on ABC iview now, and on ABC from 15 July