The latest film by Indigenous Australian filmmaker Rachel Perkins (Radiance, One Night the Moon) is a road trip musical set in 1969. Indigenous teenager Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) dutifully heads off to a boarding school in Perth only to then run away in order to get back to his home in Broome so he can declare his love for local singer Rosie (2006 Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy). Along the way Willie teams up with a homeless Indigenous elder named Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and a couple of hippy backpackers (one of whom is played by Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins). With Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) from Willie’s boarding school in hot pursuit, the journey home involves much singing, a bit of dancing and a few wacky hi-jinks.
Bran Nue Dae began as a collection of songs written in the early 1980s by composer, musician and playwright Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles. Chi later used these songs to create the original stage musical Bran Nue Dae, which successfully debuted at the 1990 Perth Festival. Twenty years later this new film adaptation feels exactly like a twenty year old show that may have worked wonderfully as a piece of community theatre but not so on the big screen. The film is so incredibly well–intentioned and full of energy that you almost hate yourself for finding it so twee but overall the prevailing pantomime aesthetic of Bran Nue Dae is just too strong. The over-the-top performances would usually be suitable for this style of musical romp but the story, songs and dance numbers are not strong enough to sustain such hammy performances.
Many of the song lyrics are actually very poignant and wickedly ironic but any sense of their sly and cheeky political commentary is lost in the film’s very trite approach. The presence of Bran Nue Dae’s charms are detectable but they are overshadowed by sight gags such as Father Benedictus taking a dump by the side of the road and jokes involving Magda Szubanski, as a character named Roadhouse Betty, throwing herself at every man she meets (it’s funny because she is a large woman being sexually aggressive).
Bran Nue Dae is not completely without merit and Ernie Dingo is especially a joy to watch as Uncle Tadpole. Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Dingo knows how to have fun with a character without completely overacting. Tom Budge (Ten Empty) also gives a very funny performance as a German hippy and manages to bring a bit of an extra dimension to an otherwise very stereotypical character. Otherwise there is little that appeals about Bran Nue Dae. It is the type of film that you could enjoy if you could just let go and surrender yourself to it but far too many cringe worthy moments constantly prevent you from being able to do so.