Director: Thomas Charles Hyland
Producers: Catherine Bradbury, Jim Wright, Josie Mason Campbell
Peek behind the curtain as a cast of neurodivergent teens prepares to come of age and hit the stage in their school’s time-travelling, John Farnham–themed musical.
Every two years, the Sunbury and Macedon Ranges Specialist School’s Bullengarook campus puts on a play. For expressive overachiever Halle, it will be an opportunity to honour her late aunt, who loved to sing. For methodical Josh, it will be a challenge to take seriously, while wide-eyed Elyse is just happy to be involved. And for charismatic Chelsea, it will be a chance to wow an audience with her undeniable comedic skill. Six months of auditions, rehearsals and nerves will be gruelling, but everything will pay off on The Time-Travelling Trio’s opening night.
The first MIFF Premiere Fund film to be awarded Bus Stop Films’ ‘Inclusively Made’ certification, in recognition of authentic representation and inclusive filmmaking processes, Thomas Charles Hyland’s feature directorial debut brims with unfettered honesty and quirky humour, revealing the human story behind the performed one. Told squarely from the teenagers’ perspective and documenting their experiences of autism, clinical anxiety and acquired brain injury, the film follows them, their families and the school staff as they weather the highs and lows leading up to showtime, foregrounding creativity’s role in fostering self-acceptance and in nurturing agency and resilience. As its title suggests, This Is Going to Be Big is sure to be a hit – an endearing, relatable tale of adolescent aspiration and a community that comes together to ensure these young voices ring out, both as John Farnham through the ages and, most importantly, as their optimistic selves.
THIS IS GOING TO BE BIG: LONDON REVIEW
BY NIKKI BAUGHAN 09 OCTOBER 2023 SCREEN INTERNATIONAL
Director: Thomas Charles Hyland. Australia. 2023. 98-minutes
Neurodiverse teenagers stage a musical about singer John Farnham in this upbeat Australian feature doc
High school can be hell at the best of times but when you are a neurodiverse teenager, navigating that rocky road is a particular challenge. Yet, as this upbeat Australian documentary makes clear, it can also be joyful, surprising, exciting and a whole lot of fun. In following a small group of adolescents as they mount a school production — a time travelling drama centred around the music of John Farnham — This Is Going To Be Big gives a voice to these talented and eloquent young people. Tapping into the likes of High School Musical and James LeBrecht’s Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, this appealing film (which has partnered with disability-led filmmaking organisation Bus Stop Films for both production and promotion) should garner further festival attention after Melbourne and London outings. It could also become an effective tool for education and awareness, particularly within schools and youth groups.
The unassuming, municipal-looking Sunbury and Macedon Ranges Specialist School for adolescents with additional needs is nestled in the small town of Bullengarook, around 40 miles northwest of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. Its pupils include Halle and Josh, who both have autism spectrum disorder; Chelsea, who was left with an acquired brain injury after a car accident at the age of five; and Elyse, who has an intellectual disability and acute anxiety which manifests as seizures. Yet, while their daily lives may not conform to neurotypical expectations, these kids refuse to be defined by their so-called differences — and are frustrated by society’s inability to see past them. “A lot of people underestimate people with a disability,” says Josh. “I hope this show will say ‘hey, you don’t give us enough credit for what we actually can do’.”
As the film counts down to the big production (filming took place between 2022 and 2023), brisk editing from Matias Bolla and Zac Grant condenses months of footage into key moments – nerve-wracking auditions, exhausting rehearsals, frantic final touches – and director Thomas Charles Hyland shows us exactly what these kids can do. It is impressive stuff; the play, about three time-travelling students who meet Australian singing star John Farnham at various points in his career, involves acting, singing (of Farnham hits including ‘You’re The Voice’) and choreography. The kids are pushed to their limits: Chelsea faints through exhaustion, Elyse is hospitalised and isn’t sure if she will make it to the stage. But still, they persevere. For Halle, her role in the show is a tribute to her beloved Farnham-fan aunt, who passed away when she was young. For the endlessly optimistic Josh, who dreams of a career in the airforce, it’s about trying something new. Chelsea, an endless ball of energy with a fantastic dry wit, just wants to be a star. And for Elyse, who endured horrendous bullying at her old school, it’s simply about feeling like she truly belongs.
For the film’s duration, Hyland really makes his audience feel part of this journey – and not just the one taking place on stage. In between rehearsals, he visits the kids homes, meets their families, eavesdrops on conversations and family dinners. He never appears on screen himself; it’s a fly on the wall tactic which really brings a sense of who these young people are, and ensures they retain the spotlight. In other moments, the kids speak directly to camera, opening up about past experiences, their frustrations, hopes for the future. There is a candidness to Hyland’s approach, and the kids responses to it, which indicate an essential level of mutual trust and respect. As the play approaches (a countdown of days remaining appears regularly on screen) and the nerves increase – underpinned by Glenn Richard’s responsive but subtle score – we find ourselves rooting for these students to put on the show of their dreams. Of course, the outcome is never in doubt, but it is nevertheless a joy to watch so much hard work come to fruition. What is clear is that, in this particular school, these kids have found a place that supports them to develop and thrive, to see past their disabilities and find their unique strengths. As they approach adulthood, and graduation into the wider world, the hope is that society is able to do the same.