Bran Nue Dae is, to my knowledge, the first of its kind: An old-school Aboriginal musical – the sort in which people break into song and dance to express their thoughts and emotions. The movie is bouncy and zesty, its energy unflagging, and some of the big numbers are heavily tinged with Bollywood. Conceptually, it should have been a trip.
And initially, Bran Nue Dae is just that. The story is set in the late 1960s and centers on Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a teenager living in the coastal town of Broome who has a major crush on Rosie (Jessica Mauboy, runner-up in the fourth season of American Idol). But Willie’s mother Theresa (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) disapproves of romance, insisting that the boy continue his religious studies (“A priest has the respect of everyone,” she tells him. “You want to be a priest, don’t you?”)
So Willie reluctantly heads to a Catholic seminary in big-city Perth, where Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) rules with an iron crucifix. Unhappy with the strict rules and pining for his beloved, the rebellious boy riles up the other students and stands up to the priest, resulting in the film’s best musical number (“There’s nothing I would rather be / Than to be aborigine”). He then runs away and begins his long journey home.
Based on a hit stage play and directed with maximum – perhaps too much – fizz by Rachel Perkins, Bran Nue Dae has a lot to say about the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and the importance of preserving their culture. But once Willie hits the road, the movie becomes a ramshackle chain of events and coincidences – a hobo the young man meets turns out to be his long-lost uncle – and the musical numbers, although varied in style and choreography, eventually wear out their welcome. Soon, whenever someone launches into a song, you roll your eyes and hope the tune is a short one.
Bran Nue Dae was a big hit with Australian audiences, and the movie looks fantastic, with grand use of its widescreen format (the cinematographer was Andrew Lesnie, who also shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy). But something about its exuberant eagerness to please gets lost in translation, and the glee becomes suffocating. This is one bright, sunny movie that makes you long for a rainy day.
Cast: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Deborah Mailman, Missy Higgins, Geoffrey Rush, Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
Director: Rachel Perkins.
Screenwriters: Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi.
Producers: Robyn Kershaw, Graeme Isaac.
A Freestyle Releasing release. Running time: 85 minutes. Mild vulgar language. Opens Friday Sept. 24 in Miami-Dade at South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.