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TORONTO — Setting a modestly scaled but archetypal quest story against the vast terrain of Western Australia, Catriona McKenzie‘s Satellite Boy radiates respect for traditional folkways and the Aborigines who manage to maintain them despite the encroachment of modern life. Combining the credibility factor of veteran Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil with a cute-kid story and some stunning vistas, the picture has solid potential at arthouses.
First-time actor Cameron Wallaby plays Pete, who is seen early on proclaiming his boredom with the lessons his grandfather Jagamarra (Gulpilil) tries to teach him. Wandering the bushland hunting small game with a spear, Jagamarra insists that this hard country has powers and will help those who learn to listen to it.
The two live at an abandoned drive-in cinema, Pete’s mother having fled to seek work in the city. When a mining company announces they’re going to bulldoze the dwelling in a few days, Pete steals off with young buddy Kalmain (Joseph Pedley) to find the company’s headquarters and change planners’ minds. The boys quickly find themselves far from their route, needing sustenance and shelter; without initially realizing what he’s doing, Pete keeps them alive by thinking as his grandfather does.
McKenzie’s script follows a template found in some other kid-centered imports. Viewers won’t often catch Wallaby trying to be cute, though, and the closest the film comes to feel-good convention is in David Bridie‘s score, whose occasional bursts of optimistic verve are slightly out of sync with the stark, challenging landscapes DP Geoffrey Simpson has to offer. Over the course of their journey, the boys see the striated mountains of the Bungle Bungles, stagger barefoot over flat, cracked plains, and sleep beneath a sky with more stars in it than our own.
Jagamarra calls to those same stars to return the child to him, and to the earth beneath his campfire; the old man’s communion with the natural world is depicted with a respect that stops short of condescending enlightened-primitive clichés. McKenzie’s vision isn’t as otherworldly as some that have taken wide-eyed moviegoers to the outback, but it suggests that, more than four decades since we encountered Gulpilil in Walkabout, Australia is still big enough to keep secrets from Europeans bent on taming it.
Production Company: Satellite Films
Cast: David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley, Rohanna Angus, Dean Daley-Jones
Director-Screenwriter: Catriona McKenzie
Producers: David Jowsey, Julie Ryan, Catriona McKenzie
Executive producers: Colin McCumstie, Troy Lum
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: Sam Hobbs
Music: David Bridie
Costume designer: Maria Pattison
Editor: Henry Dangar
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 89 minutes
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