Who's In It: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Geoffrey Rush, Missy Higgins, Ningali Lawford, Stephen "Bamba" Albert, Tom Budge, Deborah Mailman
The Basics: Straight-laced teenager Willie (Rocky McKenzie) runs away from his big city seminary boarding school and its stern headmaster, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), to make his way home to Broome in Western Australia. To get there, he joins up with his long-lost Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), two hippies (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins), and a lusty local woman (Deborah Mailman) to road trip it back home, learning lessons about his spiritual Aborigine heritage and what it means to be a man in the process. Can Willie make it to Broome in time to declare his love for the beautiful Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), apologize to his devout mother, and avoid the wrath of Father Benedictus?
What's The Deal: This hyper-colored musical melodrama, effervescently pleasant and buoyant, carries some serious socio-political undercurrents beneath its surface of sing-song dance numbers and slapstick hijinks. At issue is the way in which indigenous Australians are seen and treated by white Australians, cultural tourists, and religious missionaries, all of whom have different attitudes toward the native people running the spectrum from racial bigotry to curiosity to paternal condescension as witnessed firsthand by Willie (McKenzie), the film's protagonist. (That Bran Nue Dae is set in the late '60s makes little difference; director Rachel Perkins hardly gives her film any period distinction, suggesting, perhaps, that the ensuing decades have changed little in the way that cultures co-mingle Down Under.) But whenever things get heavy, rest assured a musical number is right around the corner waiting to bring some much-needed levity to the complex, age-old cultural questions raised herein. Any hard feelings give way to a conciliatory sentiment that feels Pollyanna, but leaves a lasting mood of hopefulness in the air.
The Heart Of Bran Nue Dae: What lead actor Rocky McKenzie lacks in solo presence is made up for in his scenes with Aussie veteran actor Ernie Dingo, who also played the role of Uncle Tadpole in the award-winning 1990 musical of the same name written by musician Jimmy Chi and the band Kuckles. Theirs is the shared story of the Aborigine man in modern Australia; together they endure Catholic paternalism, alcoholism, poverty, and displacement, wanting only the whole time to return home. Dingo in particular turns in wonderful work as Uncle Tadpole, going from good time drunk to father figure over the course of the film while displaying a tremendous range of emotion.
"There's Nothing I Would Rather Be…" The music of Bran Nue Dae is a mishmash of vaguely retro styles; spiritual hymnals co-exist with rockabilly pop, folk-infused campfire tunes, and vaudeville numbers. Dance choreography is minimal, leaving the emphasis on songs to express characters' inner feelings and desires. Songs by real-life singer-songwriter Missy Higgins (playing a sensitive hippie) and Australian Idol finalist Jessica Mauboy (as Willie's dream girl) are highlights, as is an ensemble number that turns a church full of Catholic school boys into an anti-establishment chorus singing lines like, "There's nothing I would rather be/Than be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away…"
Final Recommendation: If you're into feel good musicals and can forgive its clumsy direction and frivolous attention to themes of race relations and identity issues, go see Bran Nue Dae in theaters while you have the chance. Otherwise, wait for DVD.