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Pete Gleeson’s Hotel Coolgardie is a frequently nightmarish, occasionally heartbreaking documentary about Lina and Steph, two Finnish backpackers stranded in Australia who sign on as the resident barmaids in Coolgardie—a tiny mining town 350 miles inland from Perth, Australia. Immediately upon their arrival, they are barked at, leered at, and insulted by Coffey, the bar’s proprietor, and the various regulars. After a catastrophic first night that leaves them in tears, it becomes apparent that Lina and Steph are in over their heads. But they stick with their three-month contracts, partly out of stubbornness, partly from the knowledge that they have literally nowhere else to go in the unforgiving Australian Outback.
Hotel Coolgardie is, in a word, exhausting to sit through. New indignities and outrages seem to arrive every few minutes: a scrapbook of previous barmaids working naked or in lingerie gets passed around the bar, the men looking at Lina and Steph in hopeful expectation; a young man propositions the two for group sex mere minutes after meeting them; a drunken patron breaks into their living quarters, collapses on their couch in a stupor, and comes on to them when he wakes up. And all the while the regulars become more hostile, more indignant that the two barmaids don’t live up to their preposterous fantasies. Shot over a period of 6 weeks, the film gives its subjects room to grow and reveal themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the person of Joseph John Lowe, aka “The Canman,” an polyp-faced old codger who lives out of his car and seems to take an unusual interest in the girls. At first he seems like one of Coolgardie’s more incessant perverts, buying the girls lavish gifts and offering them rides in his car. But as the weeks stretch on we learn that he’s not particularly sexually interested in Lina and Steph. In fact, he becomes a veritable father figure, checking in on them when they’re sick, providing what meager comforts he can provide when the job gets tough. And then we learn the truth: he’s a depressed single father who hasn’t seen his estranged daughter in decades. Merely by showing up in Coolgardie, Lina and Steph allow him to be the parent he always wanted to be.
They’d never admit it, but the miners and laborers in Coolgardie need their barmaids. And not just for sexual titillation, though that certainly is a part of it. Every three months when a new pair of barmaids arrive for the local bar—usually foreign backpackers looking for part-time work like Lina and Steph—these rough-and-tumble bogans flock to drunkenly flirt, stare, and fumble for the kind of human connections denied them within the hyper-masculine confines of their blue-collar community. The barmaids become their idols, their surrogate mothers, untouchable objects of desire to be used, abused, and discarded at the end of their three-month assignments. It’s a wonder that so many barmaids are able to take the stress. But then, in an isolated sh!thole like Coolgardie, what choice do they have?