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By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  It's the daring filmmaker who chooses to walk a tightrope of odd, discomfiting comedy on their first go-round, when control of tone is everything. With the modest mortifications of "Love Serenade" that grow into violent sibling rivalry, and ultimately, confirmation that men may indeed be a different species than women, Australian writer-director Shirley Barrett manages to pull it off a gem of low-key absurdism. Barrett's is one of the more auspicious recent filmmaking debuts, unfurling the story of two twentyish sisters, Dimity and Vicki-Ann Hurley (Miranda Otto and Rebecca Frith), in a desolate Australian village named Sunray, who become obsessed with Ken Sherry (the simultaneously seductive and fishy George Shevtsov), a Brisbane disc jockey who's retired from city life. Buying a ramshackle radio station and moving into the house next door to the sisters, Sherry gives the town a lusty new soundtrack, filling the air with songs such as Barry White's "Love Serenade," "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Baby," in between his silken-voiced reveries on love and disappointment. Shy Dimity, who works as a not particularly good waitress in a Chinese restaurant, and Vicki-Ann, a brassy hairdresser, become almost pathologically obsessed with the praying-mantis-like man who starts each morning doing tai chi, sometimes accompanied by "The Hustle," one backyard over. Miranda Otto's performance is a strange thing at first, but you quickly grow to realize her character is so uncomfortable in her own skin that she even walks as if her shoes were filled with pebbles. (Her transformation to a confident creature is only the first of many swell surprises until a deliciously cock-eyed ending.) (Ray Pride)

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