A stop-motion puppet film from Australia, $9.99 is a deceptively gentle collection of menacing vignettes that form a mordantly post-colonial adaptation of English social satire. Alternating between moments of palpable verisimilitude and wry phantasmagoria, the interlocking stories exude the imaginative whimsy of proletariat despair as though it were a genre (imagine a chunky hybrid of Mike Leigh’s observational wit and the blithely ghoulish prints of Edward Gorey). This includes frank depictions of magic, carnage, and copulation, which consistently escape gratuity due to the unique animation style. The puppets, appearing to possess both the pliancy of raw clay and the glistening texture of newly glazed terracotta, have hints of realism embedded in their awkwardly lumbering bodies. Their oversized palms and painstakingly baroque irises suggest that they might be cousins of Nick Park’s Wallace that recalcitrantly sprinted a few more miles down the Uncanny Valley.
In the most flagrantly mystical subplot, a despondent transient (voiced by a guttural Geoffrey Rush) commits suicide and is forced to return to Earth as an apathetic—and vulgar—wandering angel. That we see both the blood from his temple splatter on an innocent pedestrian and his imperious regard for having sprouted a wingspan in the aftermath suggests an abruptly cynical, and yet comic, disregard for social mobility: Wings of Desire, indeed. Many of the film’s other penniless characters, who inhabit a cluster of adjacent apartment buildings in a vague metropolis, are likewise designed to assert that sacrificial transformation is necessary for self-betterment—not only economically, but in the transcendental sense. One chronically unemployable young man attempts to discover the Meaning of Life from reading skewed self-help books sold at the titular price point with enigmatic labels such as Swim Like a Dolphin! Another barnacle holding fast to the upper rung of the bottom class as a repossesser snags a super model girlfriend who softly persuades her lovers to submissively entertain her tactile obsession with smooth flesh.
These narratives are little more than pleasantly off-kilter sketches with confounding resolutions, but director Tatia Rosenthal and writer Etgar Keret artfully present them as an interconnected, crosscut network of neighborhood activity. This lends what might have been merely flippant short stories thematic cohesion (though we still puzzle over some inclusions, such a boy who falls madly in love with a piggy bank), and also effectively aids the few grating clunkers (for example, a puerile tale involving a non-committal fiancée and three cannabis-smoking Lilliputians who lead him into temptation). Though uneven, as the ironic portrait of an intensely disillusioned stop-motion community the film singularly succeeds.