John Jarratt’s third feature film,  ‘What about Sal?’, tells the story of a thirty-five years old Down syndrome man in search for his father. Sal (Gerard O’Dwyer) lives with his mum, Sophie (Kaarin Fairfax), a struggling visual artist with a smoking habit. As Sophie is diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, the matter of Sal’s primary care acquires a distinct sense of urgency. With no living family member or friend able to become his caregiver, Sal could easily be classed as ward of the state. In a desperate attempt to avoid this, Sal embarks on a journey to find his father. But Sophie cannot recall much about the man she only had a one-night stand with a long time ago. ‘I’m looking for my father who was in a rock band… in 1983!’ ‘What’s his name?’ ‘I don’t know,’ courageously assumes Sal his truth.

Grounded in concerns of the now, ‘What about Sal?’ addresses topics of family, social inclusion, diversity, community services, homelessness, alcohol and nicotine addiction. Yet, the connective thread of the plot is love. The idyllic opening scene of Sal and Sophie’s little playful greet in their lush neighbourhood, with shards of light poking through the trees, sets the tone for an unapologetically heart-warming movie.

With artistic cinematography and compelling soundtrack, ‘What about Sal?’ ticks off all the genre conventions in a well-balanced composition that exploits Sydney’s iconic sights and landmarks. The fusing of breathtaking imagery with Sal’s lone street wanderings, night life and rock en roll scenery, homeless and rough sleeper encounters, supported living, overconsumption or AA meetings, creates an arresting tension. Poetical, stereotypic almost, Sal’s family and friends sundown dinner party becomes an act of intimate  communion with the engaged viewer.

The once-famous singer, unnamed father of Sal (John Jarratt), is an alcoholic whose only purpose seems to be to drink himself to death. Should the Australian social policies not fool: it is not Sal in need of a father to take care of him, but it is Sal’s father who needs this unexpected gift of a son to claim back his life. ‘You are a good man. That’s why you want to die,’ lovingly hugs Sal his father in the emotional climax of the film.

Writer and director John Jarratt spins a tale of empowerment. Sal’s search for his father is ultimately a young Down syndrome individual’s quest to make their voice heard, their desires, ideas, thoughts and opinions communicated, their wants and needs acknowledged by community and society at large. The confining term ‘disability’ receives a one-time-only mention in the last part of the movie, standing in stark contrast to Sal’s manifold abilities. Jarrett’s light-hearted approach hides criticism of the legislation impacting the community service sector and the processes of othering that entails.  The ‘disability’ label marks off the manifestations and transformations of the self, and leads to marginalisation and exclusion. It erects new barriers, introducing further constrictions, restrictions and limitations. ‘What about Sal?’ unfastens the world of abilities and wonderful possibilities that lies within each Down syndrome person.

In the leading role, award-winning actor Gerard O’Dwyer offers a stellar performance. O’Dwyer won Best Actor at Tropfest for ‘Be My Brother’ (2009) and  Best Actor at RealHeART International Film Festival for ‘The Interviewer’ (2013). A Down syndrome man, O’Dwyer uses to say: ‘I don’t have Down syndrome – I am Down syndrome and proud of it!’ It is O’Dwyer’s impassioned collaboration with Jarratt and contribution to the script that set the vibrant authenticity inflection of the film. The gentle, uplifting humor of the dialogue, beautifully resonates with O’Dwyer’s upbeat personality. With more than 100 professional film and television credits, John Jarratt achieved international acclaim for his roles in ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ (1975), ‘Wolf Creek’ (2005), ‘Australia’ (2008), and ‘Django Unchained’ (2012). Jarratt made his directorial debut in ‘Savages Crossing’ (2008).

Actress, director and singer Kaarin Fairfax is known for several Australian television series throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In 2015, Fairfax co-starred in the film ‘StalkHer’ alongside John Jarratt.

‘What about Sal?’ is Australia’s second film to star a Down Syndrome actor, following ‘Kairos’ (2019).

‘What about Sal?’ premiered at the Dendy Newtown on the 18 April 2024 and opened on the 19 April at the Dendy Cinemas in Canberra, Coorparoo, Newtown, Portside, Powerhouse and Southport.