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Mrs. Carey's Concert 

(Documentary -- Australia)

By Russell Edwards

A glorious hymn to music and education, sparkling Oz docu "Mrs. Carey's Concert" has perfect pitch. Helming team Bob Connolly ("Black Harvest") and Sophie Raymond take a backstage look at a school orchestra performance and capture every nuance of the experience, ensuring auds feel the drama as if it were their own children onstage. Pic opened Adelaide's biennial fest, which will surely to be the first of many gigs to come. Already picked up for an exhibition screening at New York's MOMA in April, docu is a must for pubcasters and music buffs, and has commercial potential for keen-eyed distribs.

Docu's central setting is a high school boasting a highly professional music department for the femme offspring of aspirational, middle-class parents in Sydney's midwestern suburbs. As part of the curriculum, students are required to participate in a biennial classical concert held at Sydney's iconic Opera House. This large-scale affair is driven by titular teacher Mrs. Carey (her first name, Karen, is never uttered onscreen). Flanked by her fellow educators, Carey has an impassive poise that would make her a natural for Mount Rushmore, yet her every word is imbued with love for music and teaching.

An impactful beginning offers an extended closeup of the 2007 concert's star soloist Doretta Balkizas. As Doretta's face displays a range of emotions before giving a stunning rendition of Brahms' Violin Concerto, Carey's voiceover speaks of the honorable but daunting task of guiding her charges to give the performance of their lives. Opening sequence brims with tension, hooking the audience while putting the teacher's dilemma into a tasty nutshell.

Pic then thrusts auds into the long preparations for the girls' 2009 concert. The pic presents two natural stars, both unwilling in their own way. Troubled prodigy Emily Sun, the Australian-born daughter of Mainland Chinese parents, is to fill Doretta's shoes. Emily doubts her musical talents and her ability to accept the stressful role. Emily's counterpart is the willful Iris Shi, who features an "I don't wanna, and you can't make me" pout. Less astute helmers might have passed Iris over for disrupting the concert's lofty tone, but Connolly and Raymond grasp her value and allow her to express her point of view.

Between these two extremes, there are scores of talented schoolgirls who must throw themselves into the work of Brahms, Verdi and other classical composers, as well as the school's nerdy composer-in-residence, Damian Barbeler, whose composition will also be performed. The girls are reminded at a climactic moment that they are "a privileged lot," but even the most class-conscious won't miss the fact that the pressure on these budding musicians is immense. Their schedules are so busy auds will wonder when the teens find time for regular school, let alone life.

Artful helming never misses a vital moment of this real-life high-school musical adventure. Mini-DV blow up inevitably presents occasional moments of graininess, but the overall visual package is sharp and steady on the bigscreen. Editing is tight and maintains the tension established from the outset.

Sound is occasionally muddy when it comes to dialogue, but the clear narrative makes it impossible to become confused. The musical recording by Bob Scott at the final concert that crowns the docu's riveting drama is flawless.