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Lucky Country

Noirish plot elements meld with a hardscrabble rural setting in the engaging, if often stilted.

With:
With: Aden Young, Toby Wallace, Pip Miller, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Neil Pigot, Eamon Farren, Robert Menzies, Helmut Bakaitis.

Noirish plot elements meld with a hardscrabble rural setting in the engaging, if often stilted, low-budgeter, “Lucky Country.” A bit like “The Desperate Hours” restaged in Australia’s bushland, the film has a cleverly plotted, gripping script by Andy Cox, but ultimately falters due to poor acting by several of its leads. Fests will take an exploratory look, but this won’t follow the cult trail of the similarly themed “The Proposition.” Local B.O. looks to be minimal on July 16 release.

Pious, widowed farmer Nat (Aden Young) is worn down by trying to make a living off Australia’s harsh land. He’s on the brink of collapse when he and his two children, Tom (Toby Wallace) and Sarah (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), are visited by three strangers.

Nat is initially welcoming but shortly unsettled by the unlikely trio that lands on his doorstep: well-mannered yet forceful Maj. Henry (Pip Miller); laconic, aggressive boozer Carver (Neil Pigot); and deliriously feverish but handsome Jimmy (Eamon Farren).

As Nat loses his grip, youngest child Tom, who forms the pic’s epicenter, is won over by the major’s tutoring in survival skills. Meanwhile, frustrated with the tedium of homestead life, Sarah is sexually and aspirationally awakened by Jimmy’s romantic overtures as she nurses him back to health.

The script methodically tightens the screws as it plays with the divided loyalties of the homesteaders and the interlopers, and dramatically ups the ante with a whiff of collective gold lust. Things look set to bear rewarding fruit but, toward its climax, the pic stumbles into a jarring new section outside the homestead. This narrative miscalculation is compounded by a meaningless, arty finale.

Unconvincing thesping fails to build on the more solid foundations of the script. Young seems unable to shake off his acting tics, and the young players follow his unfortunate lead.

However, Oz-based British actor Miller (“Sliding Doors”) makes for a commanding villain, and Pigot adds chilling gravitas with a Robert Ryan-like turn that creates both sympathy and dread.

Taking leave from his more personal indie projects (“Blacktown,” “Boxing Day”), Kriv Stenders helms in an economic and taut manner, though he’s unable to resist occasional self-indulgences, including wobblecam and painterly moments. Dominated by dark, earthy tones, Jules O’Loughlin’s quality lensing increases the sense of threat among the unforgiving gum trees. Other tech credits are respectable.

Lucky Country

Australia

Production: A Footprint Films release of a Screen Australia presentation, in association with South Australian Film Corp., Adelaide Film Festival and Footprint Films, of a Smoking Gun Prods. production. (International sales: Smoking Gun, Adelaide.) Produced by Kristian Moliere. Executive producers, John Maynard, Robert Connolly. Directed by Kriv Stenders. Screenplay, Andy Cox.

Crew: Camera (color), Jules O'Loughlin; editor, Gabriella Muir; music, Tom Schutzinger; production designer, Lisa Stonham; sound (Dolby Digital), James Currie. Reviewed at Paramount Theaterette, Sydney, May 21, 2009. (In Adelaide Film Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Aden Young, Toby Wallace, Pip Miller, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Neil Pigot, Eamon Farren, Robert Menzies, Helmut Bakaitis.

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