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Movie review: Musical portrayal of Aborigines uneven, enjoyable

Fri., Sept. 24, 2010, midnight

Australian Aborigines don’t get much media exposure on the big screen but when they do, it’s usually as totems of myth and magic (“The Last Wave”), iconic traditionalists (“Ten Canoes”) or victims of racism (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”).

As groundbreaking as each of those films was, it’s still rare to see Aborigines as fully fleshed-out contemporary human beings. That’s where the lightweight and enjoyable, if frustratingly uneven, comedy-musical “Bran Nue Dae” makes its biggest contribution.

Directed by Rachel Perkins and based on a hit Australian play by Jimmy Chi (both have Aborigine roots), “Bran Nue Dae” shows Aborigines as both good guys and bad guys, with a sense of humor and sexuality. It’s about time.

It’s 1969 and Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) is a teenager in the desolate Western Australian town of Broome who’s in love with Rosie (the radiant Jessica Mauboy). But he’s going off to a Catholic boarding school in Perth to become a priest while the local bad-boy heartthrob with a guitar, Lester (Dan Sultan), is making his moves on Rosie, too.

Once at school, run by strict Father Benedictus (an unfunny, over-the-top Geoffrey Rush), Willie decides his heart is in Broome. The rest of the movie – in which Willie takes up with an elder Aborigine and two hippies – is his road trip back home with a determined Father Benedictus in pursuit.

There are a few standout moments, such as a swinging takeoff on classic American musicals, done with a church full of tap-dancing Aborigine schoolboys; Lester’s sexually charged musical entreaty for Rosie’s affections; and Rosie’s soulful take on “Stand By Your Man.”

And the film, redolent with the piercing colors of the Outback, practically shimmers off the screen.

But too much of “Bran Nue Dae” is buried under comedic cliches, acting that’s all over the map, pleasant but forgettable songs, and an ending twist that – even by musical- comedy standards – is woefully contrived. If only the execution had been as good as its intentions.

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