'Top End Wedding': Film Review | Sundance 2019

A bumpy road to the altar.

Australian director Wayne Blair, who scored a domestic smash with 'The Sapphires,' delivers a homegrown rom-com about a mixed-race couple navigating pre-marital chaos.

In his enjoyable 2012 debut feature, The Sapphires, Wayne Blair showed such strong commercial instincts in folding together a story of Aboriginal Australians with crowd-pleasing uplift that even the most formulaic elements drew a smile. The director strives for similar buoyancy but lands on shakier ground with his latest, Top End Wedding. The uneven road-trip rom-com exposes its contrivances by straining for laughs while slapping on desperate music cues through the insistently broad early action before finally settling down and finding genuine heart in the second half, as the theme of reconnecting with home, family and ancestral roots emerges.

Due for domestic release May 2, the brightly packaged film should find a local audience with its sweet sentimentality and its ample eyeful of the scenic landscapes and dazzling light of Australia's Northern Territory and nearby Tiwi Islands. The other draw is female lead Miranda Tapsell, a captivating presence reteaming with the director after The Sapphires. However, Tapsell is less assured in her first outing as screenwriter, working with Joshua Taylor on a clunky script that's episodic, derivative and could use a lighter touch than Blair's. International interest seems likelier on streaming platforms than big screens.

A brisk prologue set in the Tiwi Islands in 1976 shows a runaway bride ditching her fellow islander groom at the altar and zipping off in a motorboat. Cut to present-day Adelaide where junior lawyer Lauren (Tapsell), the daughter of that matrimonial fugitive, nervously prepares for a big meeting that will determine whether she's bumped up to associate. A dustup with a croissant and a broken heel leave her a mess (she's a major klutz, we're told, though that's pretty much the last we see of it) but she secures the promotion anyway, signaling higher expectations from her demanding boss, the imperious Ms. Hampton (Kerry Fox).

Across town at the courthouse, Lauren's Brit boyfriend Ned (Gwilym Lee, recently seen shredding guitar as Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody) decides on impulse that the soul-sucking grind of the prosecutor is not for him. At home that evening, he plans to break the life-changing news to Lauren while popping the question, rehearsing on their adorable dog in a scene that yields the first of so many cute canine reaction shots I lost count. Ned blurts out the marriage proposal but somehow doesn't get to the career rethink, and before long they're on a flight to Darwin, with Lauren granted 10 days of liberty from Hampton so she can be married in her hometown.

They arrive to find Lauren's white father Trevor (Huw Higginson, in what would once have been the Bill Hunter role) and the house in a state. Her mother Daffy (Ursula Yovich) has walked out on him, causing Trevor to shut himself in the pantry repeatedly and wallow in his emasculated feelings while playing Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" on a loop. (Apparently, the "Hey, isn't drippy '70s music funny?!" thing never gets old, judging by the amount of times we hear it.)

Lauren says a wedding is out of the question without her mother there, but she concedes to go ahead with the bachelorette party planned by her bridesmaid besties (Shari Sebbens, Dalara Williams, Elaine Crombie) because, well, a raunchy night on the town with a penis cake and a formation dance routine from the old days is a requirement. But Ned decides to be proactive, bundling the hungover Lauren into her dad's car and setting out on the trail of Daffy, while summoning Hampton up from Adelaide to marshal the troops and organize the wedding.

That element makes zero sense except that this is the kind of movie in which a dragon lady is introduced (Ned calls her "Cruella") only to be humanized when she gets out of the city and in amongst the real folks. Tyler and Tapsell's script actually provides two of them, since Ned's archly snooty mother (Tracy Mann), raising her culturally insensitive eyebrows about attending a "tribal" wedding, basically serves the same purpose in a more half-assed way.

While Ned's clumsy physical shtick and foot-in-mouth disease get tiresome, Lee has an easygoing appeal when the script allows it. The movie starts to find its groove once Ned and Lauren hit the road, following clues as they cross the vast red earth plains and become immersed in the rugged natural beauty of Kakadu National Park. In one visually spectacular scene, Lauren cruises down a waterway that cuts through the sandstone of Katherine Gorge, finding Ned waiting for her with a surprise that pointedly foreshadows his eventual choice of a more fulfilling career. But not before new friction surfaces to keep the wedding in jeopardy.

There's never any doubt about where Lauren's search for her mother will lead her, but their tenderly played reunion, and the additional cross-generational reconciliations that come with it, give the film an emotional weight that makes even some of the cornier comedy digestible. Finally, instead of pushing hard to land gags that don't always feel organic to the characters, the scenes become less frantic and are given room to breathe. It's refreshing, too, that although both mother and daughter have fallen in love with white men, the movie is not about cultural differences so much as it is about conflicts and discoveries within the women themselves.

An affecting sense of place takes hold toward the end — of past and present coming together in harmony, and for Lauren, of a spiritual connection she didn't know she was missing. There's also a lovely nod to the inclusiveness of the Tiwi Islands, home to Australia's largest community of gay and transgender indigenous people. The traditional Tiwi love song heard in the final scenes and the joyous faces of the locals — mixing trained actors with nonprofessionals — make the destination warmly satisfying, even if it's sometimes a rough ride getting there.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Miranda Tapsell, Gwilym Lee, Kerry Fox, Huw Higginson, Ursula Yovich, Shari Sebbens, Dalara Williams, Elaine Crombie, Tracy Mann, Matt Crook, Shaka Cook, Tessa Rose, Jason DeSantis

Production companies: Goalpost Pictures, in association with Tapsell, Tyler & Condie, Kojo Entertainment
Director: Wayne Blair
Screenwriters: Joshua Tyler, Miranda Tapsell
Producers: Rosemary Blight, Kylie du Fresne, Kate Croser
Executive producers: Ben Grant, Glen Condie
Director of photography: Eric Murray Lui
Production designer: Amy Baker
Costume designer: Heather Wallace
Music: Antony Paros
Editor: Chris Plummer
Casting: Kirsty McGregor
Sales: Films Boutique

103 minutes