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Bran Nue Dae -- Film Review

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SYDNEY -- As a celebration of cultural identity, the Aboriginal musical "Bran Nue Dae" has so much feel-good fizz that you can almost overlook its rickety construction. But not quite. The ramshackle foundations come courtesy of a 20-year-old stage play, adapted for the screen by director Rachel Perkins, working with Reg Cribb and the play's author Jimmy Chi.

Aussie audiences embraced the simple exuberance of the stage musical, but its slight narrative, about an indigenous boy's coming-of-age, doesn't support the film's outsized, often cartoonish, performances. And the good-natured theatrical shtick seems merely gauche on the big screen.

Opening in Australia January 14, "Bran Nue Dae" can expect to do reasonable business, where summertime audiences are primed to enjoy a breezy lark featuring a former Australian Idol. Save for Geoffrey Rush, none of the cast has an international profile and overseas audiences will likely be nonplused by what amounts to a cheerful but hokey local curiosity.

Set in the late 1960s, the story centers on Willie (bland newcomer Rocky McKenzie), a timid Aboriginal teen forced to leave behind his beloved hometown of Broome and his young crush Rosie ("Australian Idol's" Jessica Mauboy) when his mother sends him to far-off Perth to resume his studies for the priesthood.

"Velcome back Villie," bellows Rush, hamming it up as German-born fire-and-brimstone priest Father Benedictus. Willie soon finds himself on the wrong side of the sinners-and-saints ledger and runs away from school, setting in motion an uncomfortably protracted road trip.

Ernie Dingo towers above the largely novice cast, reprising his stage role as happy hobo Uncle Tadpole, a wily drunk who takes Willie under his wing and scams a lift with a couple of hippies. Colorful characters crop up as regularly as signposts on the journey north to Broome, with Father Benedictus' slapstick pursuit of his truant student adding only a hint of narrative urgency.

The tunes, country-rock with a nod to Broadway, fall short of show-stopping. Many of the most subversive lyrics, alluding to alcoholism, forced assimilation and Aboriginal deaths in custody, are lost in clumsily staged, overly edited production numbers.

The surreally beautiful scenery of the north-western Australian coastline effortlessly steals the show, its rich ochre and ultramarine gorgeously lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie ("The Lord of the Rings").

Venue: Sundance Film Festival

Production companies: Robyn Kershaw Productions, Mayfan Films
Cast: Jessica Mauboy, Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Geoffrey Rush
Director: Rachel Perkins
Screenwriters: Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi
Executive producers: Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy
Producers: Robyn Kershaw, Graeme Isaac
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Felicity Abbott
Costume design: Margot Wilson
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Editor: Rochelle Oshlack
Sales: Bankside Films, London
No rating, 85 minute