Petrol review – a cold, cerebral and unusual Melbourne drama

In her assiduously unusual second feature film, writer/director Alena Lodkina seems to consider “genre” to be a kind of bait, one that she refuses to take. In Petrol she crafts an experience that’s difficult to categorise and often tough to enjoy, but captivating in subtle ways. Lodkina has a way of staging an apparently normal scene, then making you think “huh?” at the end. One trick she uses is inserting images associated with horror, stripped of aesthetic and context – there’s no blast of nerve-jangling music proclaiming the arrival of a spooky visual, for instance, and no narrative template clearly signposting where she is taking us.

About 40 minutes in to Petrol, protagonist Eva (Nathalie Morris, from Bump) looks into a bathroom mirror and, instead of seeing her face, observes the back of her head. It’s trippy but presented matter-of-factly. The world, in which fleeting oddities like this take place, is framed in a style that’s realistic, borderline vérité – with ordinary settings, slow pacing, and, despite brief breaks in reality, a generally tight sense of verisimilitude. Petrol feels like a quiet act of subversion: a statement, perhaps, against the predictability of popular conventions and the prescriptive nature of genre conventions.

Related: Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours: a bold new Australian voice takes on Lightning Ridge

The cryptic Petrol invites these kinds of intellectual readings, which one might ponder during its many slow spots. The core mystery involves not what is really happening or even why, but the scope and purpose of the film itself – a mystery that encourages critical thinking, but leaves you feeling emotionally distant.

Petrol begins with Eva on the coast, wielding a large microphone, capturing sounds for a university assignment. For a while I thought the film might explore sound recording, which would’ve given it some novelty, but Lodkina moves on from that pretty quick. The closest thing to a central narrative in this film charts the evolving friendship between two twentysomethings: the even-tempered Eva and the more outgoing Mia (Hannah Lynch).

The pair bump into each other a couple of times, including at a house party where they slurp down red wine and chit-chat, before Mia asks Eva to move in with her. The women are obviously drawn to each other but Lodkina doesn’t make too much of it, with no neat lines summarising what they see in each other. But how their developing relationship is presented leaves you feeling a little cold, waiting for a moment of pure connection.

Lodkina’s previous film, the opal mining town-set drama Strange Colours, is comparatively straightforward: about a young woman from the city who visits an outback community to potentially reunite with her sick father. Petrol, which is set in Melbourne, is the sort of film in which people discuss subjects such as the nature of privilege, art as lived experience, and compare Tolstoy to Dostoevsky – so, not one to take the kids to if the latest Minions movie is sold out. In Strange Colours, the film-maker’s cerebral sensibility was brought down to earth by hard-yakka rural men – not the kinds of people who are au fait with Russian literature. Here the tone is distinctly highfalutin, and very mannered, Lodkina again directing with a firm control.

As Eva, Morris gives a subtle performance, matching the tone of the film in her quiet strangeness, and her ability to balance realism with whispers of eccentricity. Lynch as Mia is strong too, though her performance feels clipped: far more restrained and much less charming than a Greta Gerwig-type free spirit. The pair lack chemistry, though this feels almost like a directorial decision – speaking to the film’s prioritisation of head over heart. It commands a certain kind of respect, but doesn’t give a lot back.