Director Rachel Perkins scores a solid hit with her joyous musical 'Bran Nue Dae'
Australian musical is a smile from first frame to last
I published my final review of last night at about 3:00, fell asleep around 4:00, and by 8:30, I was sitting in the audience of the Raquet Club, ready for my first movie of Friday. I'm not sure how I got up to do it, but now, at 3:00 on Saturday morning, I'm back at the HitFix condo, and I haven't slept yet, and I have several things I want to share with you before I crash, so I'll have to just throw a little more caffeine into the mix and see how far I get.
Bird Runningwater is the associate director of Native American and Indigenous Programs for the Sundance Institiute, and he came out to introduce the morning's screening. This is actually the second time he's invited director Rachel Perkins to Sundance. The first was for her film "One Night The Moon," which played here in 2002. That movie was a musical, an operetta based on a true story about young girl who disappeared in the Outback in the early 1900s. Grim stuff, supposedly. She spent six years after that working on an Australian mini-series, a Ken Burns-like documentary project called "First Australians." By her own description, that was much grimmer than "One Night The Moon," a really rough emotional experience for her as a filmmaker.
So when she finished those projects, she decided to get involved with an antidote to all that doom and gloom in the form of a film version of a 20-year-old Australian stage musical, and in my opinion, the result is the first real slamdunk of the festival for me, a movie that made me smile from the very start to the very finish, and handled properly, it's a film that I think could absolutely be sold to the same exact audience that made "Mamma Mia!" and "Slumdog Millionaire" big box-office hits.
I'm not saying it could make every penny those films made, or that you should compare them quality wise. Just that it hits some of the same sweet spots, and that audiences that went to see those movies would very likely react the way the audience at the Racquet Club did on Friday morning, giving Rachel Perkins a standing ovation when the film was over. It's infection, sincere, sweet, and it never once strikes a false note.
It is the story of a boy, Willie (sad-eyed newcomer Rocky McKenzie), and a girl, Rosie ("Australian Idol" runner-up Jessica Mauboy), and the long road they take to what is obvious in the film's opening moments: they are in love. They're two sweet Aboriginal kids living in Broome, Australia in 1969. Willie is being raised by his single mother Theresa (Ningali Lawford) to be a priest, and to that end, she sends him away to boarding school in Perth, under the watchful supervision of hard-nosed priest Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush, who is preposterously charming in his semi-bad-guy role here). Willie is worried that while he's away, he's going to lose Rosie, who wants to be a singer, to a faux-cowboy guitar player named Lester (Dan Sultan). He's also worried, frankly, that he's going to lose himself, and he's starting to realize that he doesn't want to be a priest.
Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer of the "Lord Of The Rings" films, shot this movie, and his work here is shimmering and lovely and hot and sweaty and absolutely evocative of a storybook Australia that probably never existed at all, but that feels emotionally ripe. I enjoyed the first ten or fifteen minutes, but then there's a song with a chorus that goes "Light a light/leave it in the window," a wistful duet between Rosie in Broome and Willie in Perth, and it is magical. And from that moment on, I had a handle on the tone. It's like the best Baz Luhrmann film he never made, but it's got a more relaxed charm than any of the Red Curtain musicals. Willie decides he can't stay at school and he runs away. He ends up running into a wily old hobo named Uncle Tadpole (the amazingly-named Ernie Dingo), who sees an opportunity in tagging along with the boy, ostensibly to get him home to Broome. They manage to b.s their way into a ride with a hippie couple (keep in mind, it's a period film) played by Tom Budge and Missy Higgins, and Father Benedictus goes after them, determined to fetch the boy back to school or to confront his mother with all of Willie's sins.
From those simple story threads, Perkins manages to tease out an almost constant pleasure, and the cast is all appealing and sweet and tonally in synch. I wasn't familiar with any of them before this morning, but consider me a Missy Higgins fan right now. She's like the prettiest Tilly sister who never existed, and she's got pipes like Sarah McLachlan. And Jessica Mauboy lights up when she sings, a sweet-faced girl with a wicked little smile. Rocky McKenzie makes a really sympathetic lead, a real kid, and his chemistry with Ernie Dingo is excellent. Dingo is consistently good from the moment he appears onscreen, and when he sings, it's impressive, emotional and rich. He has a song when they're all in jail at one point where he wails about "Talkin' bout the blues of our people" that is, again, magic. Goosebumps moment. The music in the film is all over the place, with a country-western influence at times but unafraid to mix in things like the "Zorba The Greek" theme or the single best use of "Stand By Your Man" since "The Blues Brothers," and that tumult of influences works to always keep it fresh and involving.
"Bran Nue Dae" isn't a particularly deep film, but it is a joyous film, and a genuine emotional experience. The movie's earnest charm makes it almost impossible to dislike, and it sent me bouncing out of the Racquet Club, ready for a full day, a smile in place that still creeps back every time I think about it. Great stuff.
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