Bran Nue Dae (Brand New Day) is fun. I have a few minor complaints, but I’ll save those for later. I viewed this film at the Wilshire Screening Center, a tiny theater tucked in between doctors' offices and concealed in a nameless glass and steel office tower. The film, not yet rated, will open in major markets on September 10.
Based on a popular Australian stage musical, Bran Nue Dae takes us on a comic road movie/coming-of-age/family values romp. As a general rule, writers are cautioned against such genre mixing, but in this case what comes out of director Rachel Perkins' blender is as refreshing as a pina colada on the hottest day of summer. And, of course, it is the characters and their decisions that make the story. These characters are likable, charming, and funny. Even the antagonist turns out not to be such a bad guy.
It’s 1969, and the hero, Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a teenage boy living at home with his mom, is enjoying summer vacation. He is in an idyllic world, fishing with his friends and shyly flirting with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), one of the girls in the church choir. That flirtation leads to complications as Willie’s mom wants him to be a priest and has been struggling to keep him in a boarding school/pre-seminary. When the summer ends, Willie returns to boarding school but his fantasies about Rosie accompany him.
Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), the headmaster, dispenses discipline at the school. Rush is great, as always, although I had a hard time identifying the accent he was using. I settled for generic continental European until a later plot twist shed light on this.
Willie’s desire for Rosie and his loyalty to his fellow students leads him to rebel against Father Benedictus. The rebellion leaves him alone and homeless, until rescued by a tramp with a heart of gold, Tadpole (Ernie Dingo). Dingo played this role in the stage version of Bran Nue Dae, and tends to steal the show. Tadpole becomes Willie’s mentor and this leads to the middle of the story, a road trip/chase across Australia.
Along the way Willie encounters harlots (white and Aborigine), an Aborigine soccer team, various scoundrels, and two “damn hippies” in a VW bus. The plot is full of surprises and funny reveals. It’s Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest meets every bad hippie movie from the 1960s.