Bran Nue Dae is so spectacularly cheerful and effervescent it has successfully wrestled my practical criticisms and deemed them irrelevant. Rachel Perkins’ latest film has bound and gagged the sensible reviewer within me, leaving only an enthusiastic Aussie eager to heap praise on this rapturous love-fest. Even as I note my glee and brush aside any complaints, I can acknowledge that I perhaps have been placed under this movie-musical’s hypnotic power. But you know what? Anything this fun deserves a free pass. I could discuss an awkward narrative arc and lack of dramatic tension all I want, but it wouldn’t please readers as much as Bran Nue Dae is sure to do.
This is the first feature film adaptation of Jimmy Chi’s groundbreaking play of the same name. Set in 1969, it tells the story of an Aboriginal boy named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) who wants nothing more than to be a good son to his mother (Ningali Lawford), spend his days in Brome fishing with friends and to romance the lovely Roxanne (Jessica Mauboy). Of course, being a good son to his mother is in direct conflict to those other desires of his. She wants him to be a priest, lest he succumb to the dangers of alcohol abuse. He reluctantly leaves Broome and heads to school in the big city under the cruel tutelage of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). However, his desire for Roxanne (who is already being courted by a rockabilly named Lester – played by Dan Sultan) proves too great.
Willie escapes from school and enlists the aid of his homeless and drunken Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) to help him make his way home. Of course, Tadpole’s help amounts to little more than stealing Willie’s money for booze and throwing himself in front of a combi van as a means of bumming a lift. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, right? You don’t know the half of it. As Willie and Tadpole team up with hippies Annie (Missy Higgins) and Slippery (Tom Budge) on an epic road trip, they are tailed by Father Benedictus at every turn. Also, they never stop singing. Have I not mentioned that yet? Oh, my bad. Yes, pretty much everyone sings all the time during this adventure. Hence, it’s classification as ‘a musical’.
And what a musical. Perkins can’t quite seem to stage the musical sequences in any memorable way (in fact, many of them come off quite clumsily), but you can’t deny the greatness of Chi’s songs (co-written back in the late 1980’s with his band Kuckles). Each of the actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production numbers, evoking that same sense of elated fun that radiated off the screen in Adam Shankman’s 2007 hit Hairspray.
Mauboy, Higgins and Sultan have all been cast for their supreme musical prowess; when they sing, the screen is on fire and their charisma is undeniable. However, perhaps their casting has come at the price of solid performances, as they rarely evolve beyond one dimension in the non-singing moment. Often it feels as if they’re trying to stifle grins, so thankful they are to be involved with the project. McKenzie fares best and emerges as one of the most impressive (and downright) lovable young Australian actors. It’s no small feat to hold the screen the way he does as more and more cartoonish characters are introduced, especially considering he has only one musical number to show off with. Rush and Dingo are the real scene-stealers, the former hamming it up beautifully and the latter giving genuine texture and richness to a character that could have been a tired stereotype.
At this point, I have to give the critic in me some air and let him discuss some gripes. As I mentioned previously, the stilted staging of the musical sequences does occasionally dull the effect of the great songs, particularly in the film’s final musical number (which is pretty much a disaster). Also, there is little propelling the plot forward and almost no forward momentum; reasonable complaints for a road movie. Again though, these criticisms don’t amount to much after spending eighty minutes with such joyful company. It’s a pleasure to see such an enjoyable Australian film. Maybe I’m just gushing because I’m a Perth boy and I was flattered that my hometown was referred to as “the big city”.
Bran Nue Dae arrives in cinemas January 14, 2009.