The problem for 13-year-old Esther is not so much fitting in, which she doesn't, but trying not to stand out, which she does, in first-time filmmaker Cathy Randall's quirky coming-of-age comedy, "Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger."
This small Australian indie has become something of a favorite on the film festival circuit, and it's easy to see why. Newcomer Danielle Catanzariti is a delight as Esther, moving from dutiful daughter and diligent student to class-cutting rebel running with a group of tough chicks who maybe aren't so tough at all.
Randall sets the stage from Esther's point of view — a typical lunch break at her posh private school where she's the only Jewish student. She looks on as perfect lines of uniformed girls cartwheel across the grassy lawn before settling into their perfect picnics of four, over their perfectly packed lunches, with their perfect hair caught up in perfectly tied ribbons. It's both beautiful and disturbing and says all you need to know about Esther's isolation.
But isolation doesn't translate into safety, as Randall makes clear. Esther may hide out in an attic room high above all that perfection during lunch and try to disappear into the middle of the middle rows in assemblies, but she's still a target for all the girls and the cliques that click without her. The "Mean Girls" syndrome is alive and well Down Under.
Though coming-of-age angst is not new terrain, especially in the independent film world, and Randall serves up many of the typical tropes (braces, boys), "Esther Blueburger," as her name suggests, is filled with clever ticks filtered through feelings that are as conflicted about being Jewish as they are about being cool.
Crisis comes in the form of the mitzvah party her parents have planned for Esther and her twin brother, a slightly psychotic chap who's an ally, though not necessarily a welcome one. But ultimately it is Sunni, Keisha Castle-Hughes as a self-assured public school outsider who befriends her, and Sunni's stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold single mom ( Toni Collette), who set Esther on the road of self-discovery.
There are major bumps along the way, and that choice of whether to join the in crowd that once rejected her looms in the distance. Randall has done well capturing that awkward transition; particularly telling is Esther shredding her mitzvah dress into an edgy mini and turning her proper pumps a glitter-covered red that only makes her look younger than ever.
But always the drama is tempered with an equal measure of off-center humor that keeps things crackling, such as Esther's duckling, snagged from the science lab and dubbed Normal, and Collette's motorcycle-riding mom, the antithesis of Esther's prim, perfection-demanding parent.