NEW YORK — A feel-good drama set in the impoverished mountains of Northern Laos, Kim Mordaunt‘s The Rocket centers on a young boy whose village is soon to disappear thanks to construction of a massive dam downstream. Formulaic but likeable, the picture should please auds on the fest circuit but has milder prospects beyond that.
A twin whose sibling was stillborn, ten year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is seen as cursed by his ornery grandmother, a woman so true to her village’s superstitions she urged Ahlo’s mother Mali to kill him at birth. Mali ignored her, raising Ahlo to be a free spirit with a resourceful streak; but when tragedies and mishaps pile up after the hydroelectric project’s planners evict the family, others — not just Ahlo’s father, but total strangers — come around to Grandma’s point of view.
Forced on an arduous journey — hard on them but, thanks to stunning limestone-peak landscapes, easy on viewers’ eyes — only to find a shantytown where new houses were supposed to be, villagers are on edge even before Ahlo’s attempts to make the most of things go violently awry. Mordaunt balances these perils with the introduction of new playmate Kia (the slightly too-cute Loungnam Kaosainam) and her uncle “Purple” (Thep Phongam), a drunkard whose James Brown fixation is a transparent effort to add quirky appeal to what might otherwise sound like a miserable premise.
The film is never miserable in practice, though — it’s clearly intent on letting its irrepressible hero win back the love of a father (Sumrit Warin) cowed by his strong-willed mother into treating him as a pariah. Disamoe has an intuitive sense of how much spunkiness viewers will tolerate, while Warin makes the most of an underwritten role. Redemption will come at a rural festival where teams compete to build the biggest rocket, an event tailor-made for a kid who has shown MacGyver-like tendencies throughout the film.
The contest also puts an oddly upbeat twist on a theme The Rocket returns to repeatedly — the bombs scattered everywhere, some inert and some still deadly, making it impossible to forget the violence Ahlo’s parents and grandparents have witnessed. Mordaunt, an Australian, is clearly troubled by things Westerners have done in Southeast Asia (witness the callous Aussie overseeing the village’s relocation), but his film would rather turn lemons into lemonade (or an intimate knowledge of bombs into crowd-pleasing fireworks) than dwell on past tragedy.
Production Company: Red Lamp Films
Cast: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Phongam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Kohavong
Director-Screenwriter: Kim Mordaunt
Producer: Sylvia Wilczynski
Executive producers: Bridget Ikin, Michael Wrenn, Triphet Rookachat
Director of photography: Andrew Commis
Production designer: Pete Baxter
Music: Caitlin Yeo
Costume designer: Woranun Pueakpan
Editor: Nick Meyers
Sales: Tine Klint, LevelK
No rating, 95 minutes