I’m pretty surprised at how entertaining and compelling Pete Gleeson’s documentary “Hotel Coolgardie” ends up being. It has such a weird and odd premise that threatens to be so dull and monotonous. But by the end of the movie I was more than thrown in to this surreal situation and cared about the two focal points of the movie Lina and Steph. It doesn’t have a huge social message or political aspirations but is a pleasantly engrossing tale about two foreigners in a new land, both of whom struggle to adapt amidst a large lifestyle of sexism, xenophobia and alienation. You’d think a premise for a documentary of this ilk would be reserved for art house movie fodder, but the fact it has happened for years is so fascinating and makes you wonder who else has walked in to Hotel Coolgardie.
In the middle of a small town in Australia, Lina and Steph, two Finnish backpackers are straddled with a job agency who seeks out temporary jobs for them to earn some cash and experience a new land. After having their travel funds stolen in Bali, Lina and Steph are sent to a very remote mining town to work at the local pub. The way the proprietor keeps customers coming and going is by hiring new barmaids every three to four months and keeping them on to serve his clientele. They’re all predominantly male, and are often very flirtatious and aggressive with the waitresses, always coming back for more drinks and cat calls. Lina and Steph initially begin the job as a novelty, and are shocked to learn that the job is very demanding and mentally challenging.
This is especially true with their boss Coffey, who makes demands, barks orders at them, and derides them in front of the normal customers openly and without apology. Director Gleeson never interferes, examining as the women endure a lot of sexual advances and grossly graphic jokes about penises from a lot of the clientele. The women are always almost on the verge of being groped and or attacked, which adds a bit of tension to their work condition. There is an especially unusual moment where a very sick Lina awakens in her apartment to find one of the bar’s customers asleep on her couch. He casually explains he went to check on her and crashed on the couch. Its instances like that that explore how very pervasive sexism is within the small town Lina and Steph are stuck in.
There’s a lot more than sharp looks at sexism, though, as Lina and Steph work hard to mix in with the very small population, and desperately look for stimulation on their day off, when they realize most of the town is empty, and bereft of typical entertainment like movie theaters and or shopping centers. “Hotel Coolgardie” looks very low tech but that works in its favor, as it details a lot of unusual locals, candid moments, and sheds a light on the especially charming “Can Man,” an older bar patron who takes a liking to Lina and Steph, and comes to their aide and support time and time again. If you’re in the market for a documentary that’s more about the human condition, “Hotel Coolgardie” succeeds in light hearted entertainment and keen insight.