Though it was first performed in 1990, the musical Bran Nue Dae—now a splashy film version and the runt of the current Australian film renaissance—fits right in with today’s disgustingly perky, low-substance song-and-dance movement. No doubt 20 years ago it smacked of Up With People; today it reeks of High School Musical, with high-sugar tunes crooned in the overachieving patois of American Idol. (Female lead Jessica Mauboy was a runner-up on Australian Idol.)
Aboriginal teen Willie (Rocky McKenzie, a total wet blanket) pines sheepdoggily for Mauboy’s aspiring singer, but is quickly carted off to a Perth Catholic Mission lorded over by Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush—hammy, but then you knew that). Willie escapes and begins a spirited, song-filled road trip up the coast back home. Wacky friends are made: hobo “Uncle Tadpole” (Ernie Dingo) provides yuks, then tears, as broad humor and moony sentiment are the film’s only two emotions. A pair of hippies provide hippie-related material. Every great now and then we cut to Rush’s priest, pulling an Edward R. Rooney, to remind us this film boasts an overvalued international movie star.
Bran Nue Dae is over in 82 minutes; it only has material for about a third of that. The numbers are barely choreographed, tricked out more with insistent camera moves than dance moves. What it lacks in content it makes up for, severalfold, in energy, including some seriously loud colors. (You haven’t seen red brick this red since Do the Right Thing.) But what’s there to be energetic about?
Unlike a lot of Australian cinema concerning its historically fucked-over indigenous population, it takes a broadly entertaining stance, and also a brain-dead one. Set in 1967, racism is mentioned once, then barely mentioned at all, except in a chorus in which “Everyone Wants to Be Aborigine.” Well, all right, except the film never defines what an Aborigine is, and in fact gets it wrong. Bran Nue Dae offers a fantasy in which Aborigines have conformed to white colonialist society, and all the energy in the world can’t make up for that whitewash.
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