Ah, who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?
Takes more than just a memory to make me cry.
I’m happy just to sit here round a table with old friends,
And see which one of us can tell the biggest lies.
— Cold Chisel, “Flame Trees”
Little Fish starts with an image of Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett) as a child, dancing on a Sydney beach. As the credits end and Tracy’s story begins, the image is intercut with shots of 32-year-old Tracy in a swimming pool, beneath the surface, contemplative and cautious.
The sequence introduces the film’s complex central theme of adult rebirth. Tracy is a recovering heroin addict struggling to stay on track after four years of sobriety. Problem is, her past mistakes won’t let her move on. Two banks refuse to loan her money to start her own business, and it seems everyone around her dredges up the old days. Her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) and ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) are dealing; her father figure Lionel (Hugo Weaving) is failing self-detoxification, and her overprotective mother Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) is so afraid of Tracy slipping that she works overtime to make her daughter’s life trial-free. It hardly helps that Tracy resides in Sydney’s Little Saigon district, Australia’s unofficial heroin capital.
Tracy’s defiance makes her hard to like at times, but also underlines her sense of devastation. Even as she feels frustrated, she sees her best friend Laura (Lisa McCune) happily pregnant with a second child, while her boss is a doting father and successful businessman. Tracy doesn’t really know how to move forward, and reverts to a junkie’s deception when she lies to her boss and Janelle about her loan refusal. Over the film’s seven days, Tracy reluctantly assists her brother in a drug deal, attempts to score drugs for Lionel, and falls back into a romance with Jonny. Though she’s been clean four years, Tracy remains unreliable.
It’s easy to see why she believes she’s untrustworthy: everyone tells her so. Without her loan, Tracy can’t expand her business and boost her income; without collateral, she can’t get a loan, and so on. Her efforts to re-establish herself after addiction are stalled at every turn, except the criminal one. She agrees to help Jonny and Ray on a drug deal. It’s desperate grab for the means to start over, but, as she sees it, she has no choice but to get money illegally. Though she’s tried to live legally, the small crimes she commits throughout the film reveal she has yet to re-learn responsibility and truthfulness.
Jacquelin Perske’s script delivers Tracy’s story in a series of snapshots, brief, highly detailed moments, comprised of close-ups or bits of dialogue. During a dinner scene with Janelle, Ray, Jonny, and Tracy, we learn that Tracy and Jonny were lovers, and that Janelle resents it, though no one speaks of it openly. We don’t get the full story here, and unsatisfying as the film’s ending initially feels, the snapshots coax us to piece the events together almost subconsciously.
One particularly effective moment occurs when Tracy scores drugs for Jonny at the Cabramatta train station. Temptation overwhelms her and she searches for the nearest toilet, presumably to shoot up. The only toilet she can find is inside the hall, and as she walks through, she stops to watch a choir of Vietnamese children singing Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees”. It’s a haunting moment. “There’s no change, there’s no pace, everything within its place,” the kids sing, in flat voices, almost narrating Tracy’s life story to this point. It’s an emotional song about the memories that haunt the places we grew up, and how, in revisiting those places, we realize how little we’ve changed.
Tracy’s story ends as it begins, with her on the beach, on the potential edge of another rebirth. The film’s crime story, at this point, has passed without wrap-up, leaving us to decide the hows, whats, and whys. That we don’t know how it all ends for Tracy isn’t important. We stepped into her life without knowing much about her, and we step out of it similarly, watching her step into water.