Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review: Bran Nue Dae

Bran Nue Dae
Directed by Rachel Perkins
Starring: Rockie McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Geoffrey Rush, Missy Higgins, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy
Grade: C-

Written for Subtitled Online:

In many ways, “Bran Nue Dae” does exactly what it says on the tin; the phonetic spelling of its title intoning the musical motivations of a song-and-dance comedy intuitively focused upon Australia’s Aboriginal culture. In a similar vein as Warwick Thornton’s biblically-titled Samson and Delilah, Rachel Perkins’ feature is concerned with the fate of Australian youth – but rather than depict this through symbolic imagery, opts for much lighter methods to help us relate to its protagonists.

Celebrated by Australian critics and audiences alike, “Bran Nue Dae” is Based on Jimmy Chi’s 1990 musical of the same name, and tells the story of Willie (McKenzie), a timid teenager training to become a priest in a Perth school. Willie’s rash mistakes lead to an early crisis of faith, and a bust-up with the stubborn Father Benedictus (Rush) prompting him to decide to return to his hometown of Broome. With no way of getting there he must find alternative means, which come courtesy of ‘Tadpole’ (Dingo), a scruffy-looking elderly drifter with a drink problem who eventually helps Willie on his way by feigning a car accident and wangling a ride from two touring hippies.

From there, “Bran Nue Dae” follows the adventures of man and boy as they navigate the testier characters between them and their destination; nameably, the seductresses vying to take Willie’s cherry. It’s largely a courtship of musical numbers and farcical comedy, as it charts the pair’s eventual return to home and their confrontation with the lives that have kept them estranged from Broome. As well as struggling with his sense of purpose and uncertain future, Willie must cope with his attraction to childhood friend Rosie, and face the wrath of his formidable mother.

In shading its animated characters as vibrant, tearaway lyric-busters, Perkins’ film assumes the position of a socially-conscious carnival – seemingly keen to revise representations of Indigenous Australians as regressive or obsolete. This is achieved through following the conventions of coming-of-age-tale narratives, pitting Willie as a firm underdog within this brazen, eclectic, and evolved world, and emphasising his lack of confidence (and for that matter, others’ lack of confidence in him) as the main obstacle to be overcome. “Bran Nue Dae” goes with the grain in detailing this Australia as colourful, and surrounding its modest central character with a fun-loving cavalcade of down-to-earth extroverts to bring him out.

The child-like feel to “Bran Nue Dae” recalls films with an inherently educational purpose, and its paddling, foolhardy style helps it to maintain some interest. Unfortunately, the characters and story are developed either minimally, or with such little care, that it all becomes a big washout. It’s difficult to relate to the looseness and hyperactivity of the film’s ‘crazy gang’, and Rocky McKenzie isn’t a very interesting actor to watch - understandably struggling to make an impression with the dominance placed on upping the quirks and confining Willie to a state of wide-eyed wonderment.

Appreciating this film may be reliant upon whether you buy into the personalities on show. If nothing else, “Bran Nue Dae” adorns its musical set-pieces with character (in the way that the Jewish musical “Fiddler on the Roof” manages to) to create a permanent state of whimsy to these people. Their congregation liberates them. And still, as the upbeat, Jungle Book-esque tracks engage, they also feel very infantile. “All I Ever Want To Be (Is To Be An Aborigine)” is not the most profound of messages – nor does it have to be – but when the cast sing it there isn’t a lot of clarity as to what this euphoric cultural celebration means beyond embracing working class life – which is a popular statement in the genre as it is. There’s a wiry thread of social commentary in the references to sexual experimentation in adolescence: the lyric ‘If you don’t use a condom then don’t bother coming home’, for instance, references the problems of teenage pregnancy; while on the other side of the coin Father Benedictus acts as a critiqued, narrow white perspective on Aboriginal life.

The final few scenes of this modest, 70-minute film feel especially rushed, as a wave of revelations and back-story come to cloud a pretty straightforward pilgrimage. “Bran Nue Dae” had been so unconcerned with providing a non-figurative history to its characters before this that it feels like both an abrupt surprise and a desperate search for finality to divulge so much information in one silly, overplayed late sequence. All of the characters’ difficulties are thoughtlessly and barely tied up, and the message that the film ends on is virtually the same one with which it began: positivity and belonging are the spice of life.

The inclusivity of “Bran Nue Dae” and its snap-happy tone come at a price: too much emphasis is placed on generating surfeits of ‘fun’, while there is precious little revealed about what it means to be a sixteen year-old boy growing up in a small town. The comedy too often errs on the side of meaningless farce, and it buys into familiar tropes to detail adolescence - like unwanted virginity and a lack of a father figure. Bran Nue Dae” may be popularly advocated as a harmless pocket of cross-country activity, but I’m more inclined to suggest that its disappointing ineffectuality and lack of ambition are reasons enough to stay away.

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