It seems that the only things Australia exports more than a cheap Shiraz are quirky musical comedies. In Bran Nue Dae, we have a coming of age story, a romance, a road movie, a comment on the Christian conversion of Aborigines and a musical. While the film never really succeeds at any of these individually, it strangely works as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not a great movie, it’s just affable and, at a scant 88 minutes, hard to dislike. Based on one of the most popular musicals in Australia’s history (sort of their Mamma Mia!), the musical numbers run the gamut of being incorporated realistically in the story (singing in a pub, in a car) to the traditional use of having the lyrics be the expositional dialogue of a scene.
In the summer of 1969, young Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) lives a lackadaisical life in the small coastal town of Broome in North Western Australia. It’s a beautiful and simple life and Willie just wants to hang out with his friends and build up the courage to date Rosie (popular Australian Idol singer Jessica Mauboy). She is an aspiring but shy singer in the film and gains the attention and affection of a slimy, Elvis-ish bar singer. Willie’s mother (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), a deeply religious woman, has different plans for him: to attend a religious mission school in Perth headed by a slightly nefarious German priest named Father Benedictus (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush in a rather funny performance).
Once at the school, after some prodding from the other students, Willie breaks into Father Benedictus’s refrigerator, a sacred and sovereign nation unto itself. From it they partake of candy bars and ice cold Coca-Cola. The next day Father Benedictus threatens an innocent boy with punishment unless the real thief identifies himself. Reluctantly Willie comes forward, only to break into song (the infectious “Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)”). It’s a high-energy number and sends Willie on his way to the road trip part of the story. He is too ashamed to go back home and face his mother so he embarks on a bit of a soul-searching tour.
On his trip he encounters Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo, who originated the role on stage), his mother’s brother-in-law and family scourge. Tadpole is strikingly reminiscent of Uncle Remus from Disney’s Song of the South, complete with a bearded, cherubic face, bowler hat and happy disposition in his scruffy homelessness. They meet up with a young hippie couple, an Australian girl (singer and first-time actor Missy Higgins) and her German boyfriend Slippery (Tom Budge), who is on a mission of his own to meet up with his father. Gee, I wonder who that might be.
There is not a single surprise on this musical excursion (save for the absolutely hilarious cameo from Magda Szubanski as a boobalicious truckstop waitress), even when we get to the end, where virtually everyone from the cast shows up to confess secret after secret and where even the bad guy(s) gets a happy ending. But the songs are delightful and catchy, Rush is very funny and the movie’s charm is impossible to resist.