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.
The actors playing the hippies, Missy Higgins and Tom Budge, are not, like me, old enough to have actually known any hippies in the wild. These two took me back 40 years. The VW bus they drive was the penultimate hippie vehicle. (I owned a “if it’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’” red and white bus, and it is still the second favorite vehicle of my life.) Higgins totally captures the feigned innocence and affected spirituality (“We follow Buddha”) of the female hippie. Budge plays a German hippie perfectly, with mood swings from arrogant hostility (“Leave them beside the road”) to overly wrought emotionality. German hippies were always the most obnoxious – whatever Germans do, they tend to carry it to the extreme.
One observation on structure: the first Broadway style musical number, as in South Pacific, does not begin until the end of the first act. Prior to this moment, the music is integral to the story, as in Walk the Line. Had I not seen the preview and known what was coming, this sudden shift in style might have broken my involvement with the story.
Although the movie does not take itself too seriously, there is an exception. Told from the Aborigine’s point of view, there is a certain amount of ethnic complaining. Yet, even the preachiest moment is set to a catchy, chorus line song. You almost want to sing along with:
“There’s nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
And watch you take my precious land away”
Okay, Stone Age cultures, be you Aborigine, American Indian, Polynesian, blue Pandoran, or resident of the Jersey Shore: paper beats rock. So do iron, steel, steam, gas, and nukes beat Stone Age culture. Lions eat gazelles. Get over it. And just how convincing is it to tell your story of oppression in a musical comedy? Kind of indicates you’ve assimilated, huh?
If you don’t listen too closely to these lyrics, you might miss the gratuitous anti-Western message, but aside from that little bit of musical whining, the film generally plays everything light-heartedly. The climax is both happy and hippie and all the characters show up Bollywood-style for the final musical number. If you go see it, I guarantee you will leave with a smile on your face. What more could you ask for – except maybe your own 1965 VW bus?