Featuring: Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley, David Gulpilil
Director: Catriona McKenzie
Writer: Catriona McKenzie
Australian release date: 25 November – 2 December (Perth)
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: slight)
Young Aboriginal boy Pete (Cameron Wallaby) lives with his grandfather Jagamarra (David Gulpilil) on an abandoned drive-in cinema site in a remote area in the far north of Western Australia. On learning that the cinema site has been purchased by a mining company and marked for demolition, Pete convinces older best mate Kalmain to accompany him on a trek south to ‘the city’ to seek a face-to-face meeting with company management. However, en route cross country, the boys become lost in the glorious but inhospitable terrain of the Kimberleys. In danger of perishing of thirst, starvation and exposure, Pete falls back on the skills and knowledge his grandfather has taught him, and embraces the faith of the elders that country will take care of those open to its messages.
Ultimately, the experience in the wilderness informs a choice that changing circumstances subsequently force him to make between the contemporary and the traditional, and where he fits best.
Opening shot: the clear night sky of outback far north Western Australia showcasing the star-crammed galaxy as smog-bound light-blinded urban dwellers never see it – in astounding full high definition! – with the voiceover of an Aboriginal elder singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in language. This stunningly poetic intro to Satellite Boy ingeniously melds ancient and modern Aboriginal culture, momentarily resolving the dilemma that is central to the life of the young protagonist, Pete, and indeed, to the generation he represents: that is, finding a way to straddle two cultures without compromising either out of functioning existence. Big ask. Is it even possible?
This question resounds through the film, and drives its narrative.
The rusting ruins of a movie screen mark the site of the abandoned bush drive-in where Pete and his grandfather live in the most basic of conditions, but it’s home sweet home to the boy. His mother has purportedly left to pursue career opportunities in hospitality, the plan being to open a small cafe some time in the future. Pete resolutely believes that the fruition of this dream and his mother’s return are nigh.
In the meantime, he tolerates – just – Jagamarra’s attempts to teach him hunting and tracking skills, pass on traditional stories and generally educate him in the lore of his people. The old man speaks only in language, to which Pete protests by responding in English. He prefers biking around the bush with his older best pal Kalmain (Joseph Pedley), a trouble-prone tearaway well-known to the local police.
When the boys leave their home environment to trek south, they have different motivations, but essentially both are fighting for their futures. In Pete’s case, he’s seeking to safeguard his dream of his mother’s return and their cafe; Kalmain fears a looming court appearance will result in his detention in an institution for juvenile lawbreakers.
Nice setup. High stakes, high dramatic potential.
A few hours down the lonely road, the boys’ journey south turns dangerous and unpredictable. They flee a patrolling police car, running off into the bush, ditching their treasured bikes by the side of the road with nary a thought. Hmm.
On foot, they set off on a long and arduous cross-country trek through the magnificent Kimberleys. The camera crew take to their task with obvious relish (and manifest skill), and why not? The country is, of course, irresistibly photogenic. Perhaps the film edges too close to travelogue territory at times. There are shots of the Bungle Bungles, of red earth vistas, of gorges and huge Kimberly skies; the camera follows the boys into mysterious ravines and caves, to desert and scrub, to station country remorselessly flat to the four horizons.
But if the magnificent surrounds are over-exploited, it is forgivable, for the country is more than a marvellous backdrop. It is intrinsic to the drama, confronting Pete with his indigenous culture more profoundly than his grandfather, with all his wisdom and patient persistence, had managed to do. And yet, as the boys’ meagre supplies of water and food run out and their adventure turns into a fight for survival, grandfather Jagamarra is there in spirit, whispering the lessons of the land in the now open ears of his young protégé. Pete realises, as they face death at the edge of a parched flat of cracked earth strewn with boule-like rocks stretching ominously into the beyond, that faith in country is their only chance of survival. Shoeless, waterless and fatigued, they have two choices: to lie down and die, or to struggle on across the desert in hope that the country will have mercy on them and lead them to salvation. Powerful stuff.
Unfortunately, the desert-crossing ordeal is glossed over. I was reminded of the account of the great novelist who lands his newspaper serial hero in a deep pit with no means of escape, frets overnight on a solution to the problem of getting him out, and with the print deadline looming begins the next instalment with “When he got out…”!
The narrative begins to lose momentum from this point, which in turn compromises the dramatic tension and emotional power of the piece. It’s a pity, because it had been shaping as something special.
The focus shifts from mystical aspects of the back-to-country experience – fascinating material, ripe for new cinematic exploration – to the tussle with the mining company and Pete’s relationship with his mother. There’s a sense that the story is hurried along, with too many disparate elements packed in to do justice to any of them.
The lead performances are terrific. David Gulpilil is perfectly cast, the very epitome of the wise elder. His lines are in language, but his face – a sculptor’s dream – tells his story far more eloquently than any words. Cameron Wallaby is endearing and convincing as Pete. There is no hint of feigned cuteness here. This kid is as natural as it gets. Ditto his sidekick, Joseph Pedley, as Kalmain. Both boys are from Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley; both are first-time actors.
There are some continuity slip-ups that really should have been picked up. For example: a station-owner’s bungalow in the middle of nowhere has no water tank; Kalmain discards his daypack as the boys flee the police patrol car, and is subsequently shown carrying it.
David Bridie’s musical score works OK most of the time, with the exception of a faintly irritating jaunty melodic refrain that is out of kilter with the tone of the film.
All in all, this is a creditable debut feature from Catriona McKenzie that loses its way after a promising start. It is a work that hints at her potential without coming close to realising it.
Remarkably, Satellite Boy is the first WA movie to feature in the Perth Festival film program, and will be the first Australian film to have its national premiere at the Somerville Auditorium (December 10). See here for full 2012-13 Lotterywest Festival Films program details.
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