The historically grungy, fast gentrifying Melbourne suburb of Footscray gets the love letter it never expected to receive in this micro-budget film from neophyte director Paul Ireland and first-time screenwriter Damian Hill. Made without government funding on the kind of budget that sniffs jealously at oily rags, it nevertheless generates more laughs and knowing tugs of the heartstrings than your average Screen Australia-backed enterprise.
A gruff pawnbroker with a heart of tarnished gold, Les (John Brumpton in full larrikin mode), spends a day in his Barkly Street shop poking fun at his employee Danny (Hill), who’s obviously crushing on Kate (Maeve Dermody) from the bookshop next door. They deal with various dodgy customers, from the middle-aged guy who leaves embarrassing evidence on his pawned video camera to the vicious muscleman who threatens them with violence. Tragedy is always nipping at the heels of the laughs, such as when a middle-class woman (Kerry Armstrong) comes in seeking her son, missing down a rabbit hole of drugs. Two junkies on the street (Mark Coles Smith and Malcolm Kennary) provide a Greek chorus-like commentary as they watch the comings and goings and pool their cash for food.
Pawno is a day-in-a-shop feature in the vein of Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Wayne Wang’s Smoke, and worthy to sit in their company, even if some gags clunk and one of the colourful figures on show – a Vietnamese restaurant owner – is cringingly stereotypical. It’s a forgivable lapse in a film with so many pungently authentic characters. As a portrait of contemporary Australia, it’s an antidote to just about everything else out there. – Nick Dent