Toomelah: Cannes Review

Cannes Film Festival
An effective if familiar evocation of cultural deprivation with very limited commercial prospects.

A boy strikes up a relationship with a drug dealer in writer-director Ivan Sen's Un Certain Regard selection set in an impoverished Australian Aboriginal community.

CANNES -- An observational study as much as a dramatic story, Toomelah successfully conveys a 10-year-old boy’s perspective on the miserable limitations of life in an Aboriginal Australian community but doesn’t really have much new to say about the plight of the have-nots. An estimable display of the talents of writer-director-cinematographer-composer Ivan Sen, who gained attention with his debut feature Beneath Clouds in 2002 and whose documentary Yellow Fella showed in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2005, the new film will spark sympathetic reactions on the international festival circuit but have trouble getting much traction theatrically off its home turf.

Toomelah is reportedly one of the poorest outposts in all of Australia, which is easy to believe from the evidence onscreen; the residences are ramshackle, no one seems to work, little Daniel’s drunken father literally lives in the gutter and the boy’s mother and old auntie are negligent and out to lunch, respectively. Violent videogames have replaced religion and any sort of structured oversight in children’s lives (Daniel barely attends school) and the c-word infects virtually every sentence anyone speaks (English subtitles are necessarily supplied here, so thick are the accents).

So it’s hardly surprising that Daniel, impressively portrayed by Daniel Connors with a wary gaze that takes everything in, gravitates toward the toughest guy in town, Linden (Christopher Edwards), a low-end drug dealer and gangsta type with a distinctly unthreatening entourage. A fair amount of time is devoted to Daniel simply hanging out with these toughs, riding around in their car, going fishing and being asked if he’s “a virgin in the bum,” which no one in their circle is if they’ve ever been in prison.

What narrative urgency there is develops when Linden’s rival Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) returns from the hole and muscles in on Linden’s drug territory. Linden forces Daniel into the thick of this conflict, which has drastic consequences for all concerned, and the boy is finally confronted with a fork in the road that will determine his life path from then on.

The Australia on view in Toomelah is a far cry from the one seen in most movies from Down Under, as it portrays lives that appear undernourished in every sense, to the point that the despair expressed when Daniel finally reaches bottom seems like virtually the only plausible reaction. The impoverishment—financial, academic and spiritual—appears complete, so that it is difficult not to be depressed by this mostly hidden state of things in a prosperous, thinly populated nation.

As effectively as Sen paints this societal portrait, however, viewer reactions are channeled in a familiar way, just as the American-influenced bad guy posturing and drug culture details have been used countless times before. The dramatic palette therefore feels quite limited, even if it’s well used as far as it goes.  
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard
Sales: Visit Films
Production: Bunya Prods., Screen Australia
Director-screenwriter: Ivan Sen
Cast: Daniel Connors, Christopher Edwards, Dean Daley-Jones, Michael Connors, Danieka Connors
Producer: David Jowsey
Director of photography: Ivan Sen
Music: Ivan Sen
106 minutes